The train ride from Beijing to Tianjin is a microcosm of something, I’m sure of it. You start off gliding through the edge of Beijing, seeing the backs of buildings you never thought of as as having backs. Then the buildings peter [not all the way] out and get spaced by fields, some of which grow crops, some of which hold trash, some of which surround fish farms, but none of which are empty.
By the time you get a few miles out of the city the tracks are raised, roughly to the height of a highway overpass, just high enough so that you can see over the tops of the trees you never thought could exist so close to Beijing. What buildings are left at this point are, almost without exception, puzzling. Clusters of thirty-story luxury apartment buildings and huddles of three-story whitewashed concrete shells puzzle the mind through their proximity to each other. An unmarked three-story gray building inspires the imagination with a huge antenna on the top and plethora of surveillance cameras that are, for some reason, densely clustered on the southeast corner of the second floor. Later we pass a curious construction that looks like a cross section of one side of a college football stadium, 20 yards wide, with its back to the tracks. In the distance, a seven-story white building with uniform black windows that stretches on uniformly for several hundred yards.
I’m sure they all have perfectly reasonable explanations. I wonder if anyone knows what they are.
I remember an ad for an Amtrak program of a few years ago, wherein authors were to go on trak journeys (or so I assume they would be called) around the am (ditto) and auth (none of these words actually work, do they?) about the experience. I read one of the resulting authees and found it to be distressingly solipsistic and not at all in evidence of the supposed romance of rail travel. That it failed to enhance the romance of rail travel was disappointing to me; the solipsism less so, as in retrospect I realize it was all but entailed by the premise of a young writer forced to sit in one place for a long time and then write about it. Not that my own train reflections were any better.
On a solipsistically related note, finding the “right word” is becoming increasingly more difficult. I encounter “tip-of-the-tongue” sensations in almost every English sentence. In most cases, I can’t even think of an appropriate Chinese word – there is just the impression of a meaning that I want to express, and a feeling of the inadequacy of all the words I throw at it. I tried to cover one such impression in the above paragraph with the words “evidence” and “impression” – and I believe both to be wrong, and I am not disappointed, and (because) I find myself thrilled by the sudden tangibility of nonverbal meaning. Maybe, perhaps, there is more in heaven and earth than is spelled out in our philosophy.
If I find out what it is, though, I’ll never tell you. I won’t be able to. Maybe I should take up painting.