Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” originally published in the New Yorker in 1948, is about the mental illness of a young man who is caught between reality and illusion, and the ways in which his immigrant parents, caught between new and old worlds, try to deal with it. In my revision, the young man’s “referential mania” is updated, brought into the Internet era by raising questions about the signs and symbols of our digital world.
For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
At the time of his birth, they had already been married for a long time; a score of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab gray hair was pinned up carelessly. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring. Her husband, who in the old country had been a fairly successful businessman, was now, in New York, wholly dependent on his brother Isaac, a real American of almost forty years’ standing. They seldom saw Isaac and had nicknamed him the Prince.
That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its electronic connection between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of their hearts and the tapping of phones. The bus they had to take next was late and kept them waiting a long time on a street corner, and when it did come, it was crammed with high-schoolers, yelling over their earbuds. It began to rain as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited again, and instead of their boy, shuffling into the room, as he usually did (his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne), a nurse they knew and did not care for appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit from his parents might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came.
Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.
During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word, and every time she glanced at his old hands, clasped and twitching upon the handle of his umbrella, and saw their swollen veins and brown-spotted skin, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around, trying to hook her mind onto something, it gave her a kind of soft shock, a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers—a girl with dark hair and grubby red toenails—was weeping as she furiously texted. Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks—in Minsk, years ago.
The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly; a bowdlerized version went viral on the ‘net, adducing, for some, its darker corners. (Long before this, she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves.) “Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these cases, the patient (or commenter), imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He includes real people in the “conspiracy,” because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal reality shadows him wherever he goes. The cloud stares down, via Skype, via our email transmissions to each other, via memes, collating incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in-most thoughts are downloaded at nightfall, by remote use of the onscreen phone keyboard, by darkly giggling analysts. Crashes or hourglasses or error messages form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that are being intercepted. Everything is a cipher and of everything, he is the theme. All around him, there are (NSA,CIA, DIA) spies. Some of them are detached observers, watching his life on Google glasses; others, such as cell towers, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, like security cameras, induce hysteria to the point of insanity; they have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions.
He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not! With distance, in the server farms, torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The JPGs of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast fiber optic cables; and still farther away, great mountains of data mining sum up, in zeroes and ones, the ultimate truth of his being.
When they emerged from the thunder and foul air of the subway, the last dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights. She wanted to buy some fish for supper, so she handed him the basket of jelly jars, telling him to go home. Accordingly, he returned to their apartment, walked up to the third floor, and then remembered he had given her his keys earlier in the day. (He refused to carry a cell phone.)
In silence he sat down on the steps and in silence rose when, some ten minutes later, she came trudging heavily up the stairs, smiling wanly and shaking her head in deprecation of her silliness and his stubborness. They entered their two bedroom flat and he at once went to the mirror. Straining the corners of his mouth apart by means of his thumbs, with a horrible, mask-like grimace, he removed his new, hopelessly uncomfortable dental plate. He read his Russian-language ebook, while she laid the table. Still reading, he ate the pale victuals that needed no teeth. She knew his moods and was also silent.
When he had gone to bed, she remained in the living room with iPad, playing Candy Crush and looking at pics. Across the narrow courtyard, where the rain tinkled in the dark against some ash cans, windows were blandly alight, and in one of them a black-trousered man, with his hands clasped under his head and his elbows raised, could he seen lying supine on an untidy bed. She pulled the blind down and went back to the pics. Years before, in electronic thrall, her son had digitized everything.
She scrolled. As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies. She clicked, bringing up a pic of a German maid they’d had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé. She clicked and clicked: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about. The boy, aged six—that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. His cousin, now a famous chess player. The boy again, aged about eight, already hard to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passage, afraid of a certain picture in a book, which merely showed an idyllic landscape with rocks on a hillside and an old cart wheel hanging from the one branch of a leafless tree. Here he was at ten—the year they left Europe. She remembered the shame, the pity, the humiliating difficulties of the journey, and the ugly, vicious, backward children he was with in the special school where he had been placed after they arrived in America. And then came a time in his life, coinciding with a long convalescence after pneumonia, when those little phobias of his, which his parents had stubbornly regarded as the eccentricities of a prodigiously gifted child, hardened, as it were, into a dense tangle of logically interacting illusions, making them totally inaccessible to normal minds.
All this, and much more, she had accepted, for, after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.
It was nearly midnight when, from the living room, she heard her husband moan, and presently he staggered in, wearing over his pajamas the old overcoat that he much preferred to his nice blue bathrobe.
“I can’t sleep!” he cried.
“Why can’t you sleep?” she asked. “You were so tired.”
“I can’t sleep because I am dying,” he said, and lay down on the couch.
“Is it your stomach? Do you need to go the ER?”
“No doctors, no doctors,” he moaned. “We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise, we’ll be responsible…. Responsible!” He hurled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the floor, thumping his forehead with his clenched fist.
“All right,” she said quietly. “We will bring him home tomorrow morning.”
“I would like some tea,” said her husband and went out to the bathroom.
Bending with difficulty, she retrieved the iPad, from where she’d pushed it down the side of the chair. He didn’t need to see those pics.
He returned in high spirits, saying in a loud voice, “I have it all figured out. We will give him the bedroom. Each of us will spend part of the night near him and the other part on this couch. We will have the doctor see him at least twice a week. It does not matter what the Prince says. He won’t have much to say anyway, because it will come out cheaper.”
Her telephone buzzed. It was an unusual hour for it to buzz. He stood in the middle of the room, groping with his foot for one slipper that had come off, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped at his wife. Since she knew more English than he, she had the phone.
“S’up Charlie,” the message read.
“No Charlie here,” she texted back. “U have wrong number.” She put the phone down gently and her hand went to her heart. “That frightened me,” she said.
He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue. They would fetch him as soon as it was day. For his own protection, they would keep all the electronics in a locked closet. Even at his worst, he presented no danger to other people.
The phone buzzed again.
“Charlie r u there?”
“You have the incorrect number,” she texted. “Delete this number please.”
They sat down to their unexpected, festive midnight tea. He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he raised his glass with a circular motion, so as to make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly. The vein on the side of his bald head stood out conspicuously, and silvery bristles showed on his chin. The birthday present stood on the table. While she poured him another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and reëxamined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, and red little jars. His clumsy, moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels—apricot, grape, beach plum, quince. He had got to crab apple when the phone buzzed again.