Nothing Lasts: A Noir Mandala

Nothing lasts. There is no permanent v. impermanent, only varying degrees of impermanence. An apple breaks down faster than a planet. This is why Tibetan Buddhist monks will spend days or weeks making a painting in sand of a mandala, an intricate symbol representing the universe—and, when it’s complete, they erase it.

This is neither vandalism nor nihilism, but an expression of the Buddhist understanding that creation contains destruction, and birth contains death. As the poet Jane Hirschfield said when asked to explain her Zen understanding: “Everything is connected. Everything changes. Pay attention.”

I had to pay particular attention while writing this. It’s my final column for The Big Click, because it’s the final issue of the magazine. My attention was sharpened because, as I was writing it, my beloved cat Maggie, constant companion for the last 19 years, suddenly became distressed and had to be euthanized. She died peacefully as she lay on a pad on the wood floor of my apartment. I was stroking her head, and I felt the life dissipate. Afterward, the kind vet who tended to her hugged me. When the vet left, I began to shiver, though it was a warm day. I felt so cold that I got in bed fully-clothed and stayed there until I got so warm I was drenched in sweat. I don’t know what caused the coldness—I’ve watched humans and animals die before—and I suppose it was grief.

But it wasn’t sadness. I’ve shed no tears today, though I suspect they’ll come. But if they do they’ll be tears for myself, not for Maggie. Since her death nine hours ago, every time I’ve thought of her, or looked at a picture of her, I’ve smiled in sheer joy that she lived, that she had a long and happy life, and that I got to be with her for all of it.

The first thing I wrote for The Big Click, four years ago, is a work of crime fiction set in Scotland, titled “Big Davey Joins the Majority.” The “majority” referred to is all the people who have ever died.

I wasn’t aware of the The Big Click’s existence until Nick Mamatas invited me to write that story. After reading it, I loved the magazine so much that I asked Mamatas if I could submit more stories. He responded that, as it was published every other month, and each issue contained two stories, publishing fiction by the same writer frequently wasn’t feasible. But, he added, the magazine’s founding columnist, the great crime and horror novelist Tom Piccirilli, was taking a break while undergoing treatment for cancer, and I could fill in for him if I wanted to. I said I would, as long as Piccirilli understood that he wasn’t being replaced and that I was just keeping his seat warm until he was well enough to return. After a couple columns, I was told they wanted to keep us both. Although it briefly looked as though Piccirilli was going to recover, he never fully did, though he continued to write whatever he could until his death last year. Since early 2013, I’ve written the column, and it has brought out some of the best nonfiction I’ve written in the almost 30 years I’ve been in the business.

I don’t know how many magazines I’ve had my work published in. Some, like Harper’s, have been around for more than a century… but that’s unusual. The majority of magazines have a lifespan of years, not decades or centuries.

And The Big Click, in my opinion the best magazine I have ever published in, is now about to join the majority.

And, though I’m grieving, I’m not sad. And, though it’s a loss, it’s not a tragedy. The magazine is a triumph. And, like the completion and destruction of a sand mandala, or the quick and peaceful death of a magnificent cat, the time between its beginning and end, the fact that it existed, that it lived and died, is cause for celebration.

What made The Big Click so great? Its editors, Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer, are both brilliant authors who have equal respect for the writer and the reader. Read their books and you’ll see they understand that you don’t have to be glib or shallow to be interesting. From the start, they have been supportive of everything I’ve written, every chance I have taken, every seemingly weird connection I’ve made, and have never expected me to dumb it down. In the world of publishing, this is about as common as substantive discourse at a US candidates’ debate.

I tend to be a fast writer, but the freedom to think in public provided by The Big Click slowed me down. I would write and rewrite my columns, usually filing them at the last minute (the editors showed saintly patience). All that work was the opposite of drudgery; my obsessive revision came from an exuberance and excitement, a knowing that I was free to do great work, and the challenge that’s intrinsic so such freedom. And, with each issue, I saw how great the fiction published was, so I was driven to write columns worthy of being published alongside it.

Another thing—and it’s not a small thing: although it never made any money, but ran at a loss, The Big Click paid its writers. Not vast amounts, but more than many magazines that actually have deep pockets. And payment came when you expected it. If you think that’s common, you’re not a writer. This is not separate from the magazine’s artistic ethos, its seriousness and refusal to cop out.

So why is this issue the last? The mandala is finished. The last breath is exhaled. Tom Piccirilli, the magazine’s inspiration, has joined the majority. The editors aren’t feeling it anymore. Jacques Brel declared that he “would not become an industrialist of song,” and my sense is that the editors have arrived at a similar place.

And I’m glad.

A friend asked me if I was going to move my column to another magazine. I laughed. Sure, I’ll continue to publish wherever, but how could the column inspired by The Big Click possibly be published anywhere else?

Maggie didn’t become a decrepit, suffering shell of the cat she had been. The Big Click isn’t going to become a sad relic like Harper’s or The New Yorker. It dealt with real things—life, death, fear, anger, poverty, greed, social class, desperation, love—and, like the beautiful, doomed protagonist of a noir story, it has arrived at its end.

Stroking her head, I feel the life dissipate.

Any tears I shed will be of gratitude.

About the Author

Barry Graham

Barry Graham is a Caledonian gentleman of letters whose previous occupations have included prize-fighting, monastic vocation, the fourth estate, vagabondage and the general avoidance of honest toil. Along the way, he has penned more than a dozen books, including the novels The Book of Man (an American Library Association Best Book of the Year) and When It All Comes Down to Dust (a Mystery People Best Book of the Year). Three of his novels and a collection of his stories have been translated into French.

In 1995, he fled his native land for the U.S.A., and thus far has managed to avoid deportation. He spent 12 years in the cactus jungle of Phoenix, Arizona, five years in the hell realm of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is now a denizen of Portland, Oregon.

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