At the Paris Review Daily, Tulane University professor Thomas Beller ruminates on his time in Phnom Pehn from a bathroom in New Orleans. Beller, who’s the author of the essay collection How to Be a Man and the novel The Sleepover Artist, spoke with Room 220 last spring about the closing of Open City, the esteemed New York literary journal Beller co-founded and edited for 20 years.
The Topographical Soul
by Thomas Beller
I was at the last show of the night in a movie theater in New Orleans, and I stepped out midway to go to the bathroom. The movie was loud, cacophonous, upsetting—a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As I peed, I stared absentmindedly at a tile in the wall in front of me.
There was nothing remarkable about this tile, but I felt an involuntary shiver. I was alone in the bathroom, but it occurred to me that the bathroom itself had once been alone and empty—for days, weeks, maybe months during the hurricane and evacuation. It had been frozen in time like the figures in Pompeii but without any bodies to be captured in mid-life, mid-gesture. Instead, what had been captured, what resonated, was a stillness that persisted even now, after the city had ostensibly come back to life.
Cities are not meant to be emptied. Most of them never are. Even in their quietest hour they have a rustling sense of breath. But I had once spent time in another city that had also been emptied: Phnom Penh, which was evacuated under the Khmer Rouge.
Read the entire piece at the Paris Review Daily.