‘He Considered Himself a Brain Chef’: An Excerpt from ‘Harold,’ a New Novel by Steven Wright
Harold is the first novel by Oscar-winning comedian Steven Wright. According to Simon & Schuster, “It documents the meandering, surreal, often hilarious and always thought-provoking stream-of-consciousness ruminations of the seven-year-old title character during a single day of third grade in the 1960s. Saturated with the witticisms and profundities for which Wright’s groundbreaking stand-up has long been venerated, this novel will change the way you perceive your daily existence. To quote one of its many memorable lines: ‘Everything doesn’t have to make sense. Just look at the world and your life.’”
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Ms. Yuka was standing in front of her desk when she began to brush a small piece of lint off her skirt just above her right knee, and Harold wondered if there was more lint in China than in the United States and wondered if it mattered and if so how?
Harold wondered if the Chinese had their own FBI and if it was called the CFBI. Could the CFBI and the FBI tell the difference between Chinese fingerprints and American fingerprints, and he didn’t mean a specific person, he meant was there a general difference?
Then he thought there should be a fistfight between the guy who said no two fingerprints were alike and the guy who said no two snowflakes were alike. A fight to the death.
After Ms. Yuka finished with her U.S./Chinese lint, she said to the class: “Remember to keep working on your book report and your oral presentation which are both due after Christmas vacation which starts Friday.”
Harold’s book report was about a book he read about Alfred Nobel who was the guy who invented dynamite. He worked in a factory as a chemist focusing on explosives. His brother worked there too and was accidentally killed in an explosion. So Alfred decided to turn this horrible tragedy into something positive. With the huge fortune he made from dynamite, he developed the Nobel Prize, which led to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Harold thought if this was true what kind of prizes could the guy who invented the atom bomb come up with? Maybe the “Universe Peace Prize.”
Just to torture Ms. Yuka, Harold thought of asking her if the book report should be about the subject of the book or a report about how the book was written. But he didn’t because he was tired and just wasn’t in the mood.
Harold did more thinking than someone his age. Or any age.
He thought wouldn’t it be great to be able to sleep standing up with your eyes open. Imagine asking Elizabeth if she would like to meet him some night in the middle of the woods so they could sleep standing up with their eyes open facing each other, and he wondered what kinds of dreams they would have then? And wouldn’t it be weird if they both had dreams but neither one of them was in the other’s dreams.
Elizabeth was a girl in the class.
Harold thought that Alfred Nobel should have a fistfight with the guy who invented gunpowder whose name nobody knew because it was invented by the Chinese in the 9th century. A fight to the death.
He wondered if Ms. Yuka was related to the guy who invented gunpowder, he thought if she was, he would look at her differently.
Harold imagined raising his hand.
“Are you at all related to the guy who invented gunpowder?”
He pictured her looking at him and then, in a gentle but also somehow stern way, saying, “Harold, just pay attention.”
In his mind he would say, “I’ll pay attention, but I was wondering if over Christmas vacation I could come over to your house and you could make believe you’re the Empress of China and I’m the guy who just invented gunpowder and you wanted to reward me. How would you feel about that?”
Harold loved the birds in his head and Elizabeth and Ms. Yuka once in a while.
Sometimes he imagined he was shipwrecked with Elizabeth and Ms. Yuka on an island that had hundreds of parrots and no other kinds of birds. The three of them would live in two different huts. All the parrots spoke different languages and they were in groups of two so each parrot had another parrot to talk to. This led to him imagining quietly making little parrot noises to himself just for his own amusement.
Then he thought of Pamela Clancy, who sat right beside him to his left, and what if she looked over and saw him making the little parrot noises. This seemed so insane and funny to him that he almost peed his pants.
Then he thought that sometimes you see statues of little boys peeing into fountains but you never see statues of little girls squatting down peeing into fountains, he wondered why is that? It could be done if they wanted.
The boy wished he could have been at the meeting where that was decided.
One winter Harold was outside with his sister and she tried to pee her name in the snow and broke her ankle.
He began to pray, even though he wasn’t sure if there was a God, for some kind of bird to fly through the middle of his head to stop all this madness.
A strange sociopath parakeet drifted through the rectangle causing him to put his head down on his desk and fall asleep. Harold was asleep for about a minute, but he had a three-and-a-half hour dream. He thought how can that be? He assumed that dream time must be different than awake time.
The dream Harold had was about a guy who was trying to train a turtle to be a contortionist.
Harold had some unusual interests: He loved stencils and the word stencil and what it meant, and he thought that if he ever had a little girl he might name her Stencilina: “Hello, I’d like you to meet my daughter Stencilina.”
Maybe there could be twins: Stencilina and Stencileenia. They would be so identical that the only way you could tell them apart was if you wrote their names down.
Then another bird flew through the middle of Harold’s head that made him think that all twins were live stencils.
The boy loved interesting words. Words that had a nice sound combined with what they meant: Stencil stencil stencil.
In some cases it stunned Harold how things could change. Like the horrible dictators and mass murderers or murderers in general. How they were once little babies looking up into someone’s eyes. How can this be? How?
Harold was a wondering machine.
God made Harold specifically to wonder. If there was a God.
Whenever he heard about somebody’s parents getting divorced, he liked to imagine the girl walking down the aisle and then the priest saying: “You may now kiss the bride.” And then later, there they are sitting at tables on opposite sides of the courtroom all serious and sad and angry.
Harold thought, wouldn’t it be weird if every time the guy wanted to kiss his wife, the priest had to be there and say: “You may now kiss the bride.” And then later, after the whole thing went bad, the priest would say: “You may now divorce the bride.”
Harold was fascinated by divorce proceedings and outcomes.
A very beautiful dark blue bird with black eyes and a beak that looked like it had a small smile flew through the rectangle.
Harold thought that, say, for instance, a husband got up one morning and drove to the nearest airport and didn’t tell his wife he was doing this and then he got on a plane and flew three-and-a-half hours to another city and then he rented a car and drove two hours out to a small town and his wife didn’t know anything about this and there was a bank in this town and then he went in to rob the bank and then during the robbery tragically one of the security guards was killed and he was arrested and then he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison and the wife didn’t know anything about this plan, she didn’t contribute to the plan, she didn’t help organize the plan, she had nothing to do with it, the husband thought of this and did all of it completely on his own, and now he’s going to do 25 years to life in prison, was she going to do half?
One time in class, Steven Srike raised his hand and asked Ms. Yuka if mass murder meant that all murders took place in Massachusetts, and Harold remembered that the way Ms. Yuka told him this was not what it meant was so kind and gentle and loving that he wanted to hug her.
Harold’s childhood was taking place in Massachusetts.
A very small red and yellow beaked bird flew through the rectangle in Harold’s head and he wondered what was written on the other side of the blackboard.
The blackboard was green. Yes, it was. This was another piece of knowledge going into his head, which was that the world was nuts and even the people in charge were very wrong on things even though they were adults.
He wanted to raise his hand and ask Ms. Yuka what color the blackboards were in China, but he didn’t because he just wasn’t in the mood.
Harold raised his hand.
“Ms. Yuka, do you happen to know what’s written on the other side of the blackboard?”
Harold asked it quietly on purpose so she couldn’t understand just to amuse himself. Harold raised his hand.
“Ms. Yuka, did you know that rickshaws were in Japan before they were in China where their popularity really took off at the turn of the century?”
“Excuse me Harold?”
Ms. Yuka asked the class who knew where Miami was, and Harold didn’t know why because he was busy with his own mind and his own life and part of him thought that being asked a question by Ms. Yuka or anyone really was an invasion of privacy. In fact, he remembered when his grandfather told him that he considered being alive an invasion of privacy.
He was in and out of paying attention like someone who was away and occasionally came by to pick up their mail.
It became a routine for Harold that whenever Ms. Yuka said, “May I have your attention,” under his breath he would say, “Get your own attention.”
He did, of course, know exactly where Miami was because of the black globe and because his family had gone to Florida one summer on vacation. They went in the summer because it was cheaper.
Harold remembered driving by a billboard that was advertising glass-bottom boats, and just then a bird flew through the rectangle in his head and he thought wouldn’t it be great if he had a pair of glass-bottom shoes that he could wear on the glass-bottom boat with no socks on so that if the fish looked up they could for the first time in their lives see bare feet that weren’t in the water.
One of Harold’s hobbies was to try to see the world through the eyes of other people or animals. He learned to do this by doing the opposite of what his mother did.
Elizabeth raised her hand.
“It’s in Florida. You drive through it when you go to the Florida Keys, which is where Ernest Hemingway used to live.”
“Yes, very good, Elizabeth.”
Harold raised his hand.
He raised his hand again.
“Do you have a question, Harold? When you raise your hand you’re supposed to have a question.”
“What was the name of that tribe of Indians you were talking about a few months ago that had two names?”
“That was the Lakota, and the white man called them Sioux. Why do you ask?”
He thought the Lakota was the most interesting thing Ms. Yuka had ever talked about.
Ms. Yuka was a stunningly average-looking woman.
She was about between 28 and 32ish years old, 5-foot-8 tall, with a build that was about 15 percent slimmer than medium. She wore a black skirt that went to just above her knees, and usually some kind of shirt/blouse type thing. Always black flat-heeled shoes. Dark dark brown eyes that showed her mostly happy very alive spirit. Shoulder-length black hair that she wore in different female-type arrangements.
Ms. Yuka loved being an elementary school teacher. The class would never ever know how much. She partially grew up in Chengde, China, which is 111 miles from Beijing. At the age of eight her family moved to South Dakota, then to New England.
Once Ms. Yuka gave the class the assignment to write their autobiographies right then, in one hour. Her mistake was saying there was no wrong way of doing it. Harold wrote: Born and now 7. The end.
100 percent direct, accurate, true.
Harold loved living in the circus in his head. He saw his mind as a soup made up of a mixture of what was on the inside of his head and what was on the outside of his head. He considered himself a brain chef.
This is how Harold saw what was happening inside his head. He felt the way his mind worked was that there were thousands and thousands and thousands of tiny birds in his
head and each bird represented a single thought. There was also a little, very, very small rectangle in the middle of his brain. Like an empty window frame or an empty picture frame.
The birds were much smaller than the frame. They were flying all around randomly in his mind, which was like an indoor sky. When one of these birds flew through the rectangle, whatever thought that bird represented that’s what Harold would think about. That’s why it seemed like he would jump from subject to subject. It was because of the birds and the rectangle.
For instance, a bird that represented lifeboats once flew through the rectangle. So Harold was now thinking about lifeboats which led to this: There were 25 kids in the class — what if they were on a ship that was sinking? He figured that a lifeboat could only take 20 people, so which five kids wouldn’t get on?
Slowly he looked around the room trying to imagine who would be the lucky ones. This reminded him of the tragedy of the Titanic. Not nearly enough lifeboats. And then the fact that the sinking of the ship, April 15, 1912, knocked the opening of Fenway Park that same week out of the headlines. Which caused him to wonder how Carl Yastrzemski would do next season.
That bird started a tangent festival in Harold’s head. Who would ever have known that the subject of lifeboats would lead to the left fielder for the Boston Red Sox?
God was hilarious. If there was a God.
A very black bird with orange wing tips flew into the rectangle and then circled within it a couple of times and then flew out bringing this thought about lifeboats: Why don’t any of the lifeboats in the history of the world have sails? They would be “sail lifeboats,” and they could just sail all the way to safety, even thousands of miles.
Harold also had thoughts on his own that were not brought by the birds. For instance, he felt there should be lifeguard chairs everywhere because people needed to be saved more places than just in the water. As far as the class and a lifeboat, they always say, “Women and children first,” so that would mean everyone.
Harold resented being a child other than if he was on a ship that was sinking. He didn’t like the label of being a kid and all that people thought it meant. What people assume someone knows or doesn’t know pissed him off.
A red bird with a green head and yellow-tipped wings sped through the rectangle bringing this thought: “A kid knew more by knowing less.”
Since he had less information in his head, maybe he could see the overall picture better, bigger without being blocked by lots of facts. Like looking at a photograph of the earth taken from outer space. Taken by the men on the Apollo.
Plus, of all the wars in the history of the world, none of them were started or caused by children. This was a major factor overlooked by the general population and proved that the adults were the real idiots.
All the crimes against humanity: adults.
And so, to have to raise his hand to get permission to go take a leak or ask a question infuriated him.