This was what he did when he felt like a failure: he withdrew. Erika said he withdrew into himself. He said, No—his self was no refuge. He understood what she meant, of course, the figure of speech. But when he felt like a failure he could not accept that anyone might understand him. That would contradict his despair. He didn’t want to see anyone and he didn’t want to be seen and so he made himself unsightly: he drank a great deal and slept very little and gave up on grooming and laundry. He did not want to talk to anyone. He spoke only when he felt he had to, and the speech came in brief bitter outbursts that surprised him and gave him no relief.
He said things like, “No, no—don’t console me. Don’t even try. It’s pointless. Don’t dare. Please, don’t patronize. You cannot understand. You can’t relate. You will only make it worse. Your consolation is anathema to me. Don’t protest. This has nothing to do with you. I’m sure your consolation is excellent, and your sincerity first rate. I just don’t want it—not yours, not anybody’s. Isn’t that obvious? Is it so outrageous to be unconsolable? Is it such an affront? Does my affliction afflict you? Please don’t forgive me. I make no apologies. And I blame nobody. I have nobody but myself to blame. Do you hear me? Nobody but myself. I know this makes me intolerable. Please don’t tolerate me.”
So talking was useless, and he withdrew further into his private squalor, the black mood that had its reasons but quickly grew beyond them to become its own all-encompassing unreason.
There were times when feeling so bad could feel pretty good. He didn’t deny the perverse tremors of pleasure that came from wallowing in the murk of his soul, with language running riot in his head, until the din of his flailing drowned out the wars that were his livelihood. That’s what he had done with his years: he went to the wars, and he went through them, and he wrote about them, and he got praised for it because he was good at it. He was uncommonly successful, he liked to say, at being the sort of failure who needed armies clashing around him to forget about himself and find his equilibrium.
In the beginning, he’d gone to war out of curiosity. He had wanted to see for himself. He did not like what he saw, but he liked having seen it, and he liked telling the stories. He kept getting prizes, but his stories made no difference. The wars just kept on going, and there was always a new one, and then another. He saw that his work was futile, and his work was his life. Why write about things that nobody should ever have to know? He despised war and he could not live without it, and for this reason, when he lost perspective—or was it when he gained it?—he despised himself.
There always came a point, in his times of withdrawal, when he noticed that he’d started writing again. Writing helped. It came in small fragments at first, half-formed thoughts that gradually fit together into a coherent mood—that is, a mood he could inhabit. In this way, painstakingly, he wrote himself back into existence again, and when he recovered the ability to feel happily oblivious and insignificant in the sweep of larger forces, he did not worry about annihilation and he went back to work, back to war, doing the thing he was good at. Words got him into trouble, and words got him out of trouble.
This time, the first phrase he wrote that gave him a way out was just six words: “Self-loathing or narcissism—what’s the difference?” According to the habits of his mind, that question was the strongest argument against his feelings of failure. A day or two later he wrote, “Narcissists should be shot,” and it occurred to him that if he were to shoot himself that would make a very funny suicide note. It felt good to laugh.
He asked Erika, “Should I be shot?” She said, “Whatever makes you happy.” He thought that was funny, too, but he could see she wasn’t joking. He had succeeded in making her sick of him. He began to hate himself anew. He could not withdraw further without leaving, so he left.
“You’re leaving me,” she said, and he said, “No.” Then he said, “But I’m not doing you any good staying.” And she said, “No.” Then she said again, “You’re leaving me.”
He waited for her to cry, but she didn’t, and that made him want to stay, but he didn’t.
She said, “Good-bye, Jerry.”
He said, “I’ll write to you.”