a semi-critique of pneumania by burton carl

Thesis: don't tell anyone about your skills if a girl who has a boyfriend is listening.

Pneumania is a touching tale of a boy wandering the big city hoping to find someone to beat up because he doesn't know how to play the trumpet.  He likes a girl who likes parrots but he doesn't like parrots which makes it mathematically impossible for the girl to like him back.  But the boy is unaware of this arithmetic which makes his plight all the more tragic.  In the end the boy does find someone to play board games with which makes his life bearable.  And for that we may thank our sympathetic writer.

This story was originally published in Bookman Old Style font which added just enough tenderness to the telling to make the story resonate in this reader's eyes.  The narrator encapsulates the forlorn, passive anxiety of his (?) generation--a generation that improbably "looks to the stars for answers to the sea".  ​The writing, though concise and tight, is surprisingly careless.  Don't ask me how this can be.  But the story is filled with the kind of flint that just might spark the docile mind.  Passages lean toward the didactic but thankfully never quite fall over.  (BTW, I look just like that and don't forget to buy men's clothing.)

-- Burton Carl

“One Note Symphonies”


upstairs in her bedroom

The bed is unmade and I see a long strand of hair on her pillow. 

“Those aren’t lions,” she says.

I watch her lift her arms to the ceiling to touch them. There is something soft in her--something that smells like spring blossoms. And she blossoms before me slowly. So slowly, that I think the universe desires her too and causes the rain that suddenly begins to fall.  

music and flying

There is a relationship between music and flying that has yet to be studied. For example, how the arc of a crow’s flight influences the texture of a Beethoven sonata. Or how the delicate shifts of a pigeon’s wing effects cadence in a Mahler symphony or a Janacek concerto.

In fact, just the other day, Ravel’s Bolero was irrevocably changed by the diving of a clumsy pelican.

the bicycle in the yard

The bicycle in the yard is getting wet. The clouds sweep away the blue sky, and she is sleeping. 

“I want to tell you something while you are sleeping,” I say, “I want to tell you that something has changed. No one can know. The flow of things has changed. This room is different. There is a tension. A feeling, after all. A tension that I want to speak about. A captivating, tangible—yet intangible, movement of some sort. A gripping dementia. A dense impression. A something.”

She turns over on her side and wraps the white blanket around her body. The rain falls harder and I imagine her riding a wet bicycle.

“Don’t think of things like that,” she says, “I don’t want to get pneumonia.”


“Pneumonia”, she says.

Smoke drifts between us, and I wait for a sign--a sea to part, a door to open, a leg to spread.

“Would you like to smell my java?” she asks (I hear a dog barking).

The trumpet player smiles at her when he plays. She smiles back at him. And then I say the unspeakable. Three words that are forced out of my gullet by a geyser of intense emotion. Three words that set me on a course of a subtle, but draining self deceit: “I hate jazz”.  

And so I resist the temptation to tap my feet, or to snap my fingers. I sigh. I yawn. I look away and search for the deepest, darkest, most defiled labyrinth of my soul.  

friedrich nietzsche and sherlock holmes

“The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.”  

So said a great philosopher and psychologist.

“What do you think that means?” she asks me.

“That is a vexed question”, I say.

“Vexed indeed”, she says, “there are no markings on the original Hung Wu.”

It’s raining harder, so we stop and wait in the doorway of a sex shop. She smokes a cigarette. In the shop window rubber penises and plastic women advertise themselves. Across the street, men wander in and out of a private sauna. But in the midst of this suggestive depravity, I try a pure and honest approach, because sometimes even the truth works.

“I like you very much”, I tell her.

“I like the big, blue one”, she says.

Bilingual prostitutes I think to myself. Are there any? But that’s too simple. And then: is there more than one word that ends with the letter v? Down boy, down. Vexed indeed.


I have no talent. And therefore, I must make due with a common, mediocre soul. And to admit with the little sincerity I have and without pretension, that I desire a simple life and that I am profoundly happy with the little things that I have and with my place in the universe.

“It’s not jazz”, she says.

And so I ignore distinctions. I ignore the fact that the trumpet player is much more talented than I am. Or that I am slightly more talented than the man sitting at the next table. For me there is only genius or mediocrity.  

“I’m a simple man”, I say, “I don’t understand the complexities and nuances of such an esoteric art.”

“I’m getting sleepy”, she says.

We leave the cafe’. It’s still raining and the darker circles of her body reveal themselves to me through her dress.

“The ability to make distinctions”, she says, “is a sign of intelligence.”


“What’s the matter?” she asks me.

“I hurt my foot”, I say.

the goose

Of all the birds that affect Chopin, in a positive or a negative way, the goose has the most profound influence. I was listening to Chopin’s Variations in B flat, Opus 2 on “La ci darem la mano”. Pre-goose, the instrumentation is sketchy at best, the flourishes fall flat, and the articulations are barely perceptible. With other birds, such as the falcon or the parrot the flourishes are lively, but again the instrumentation and overall orchestral quality of the piece disappoints. Only the swan and the duck ((male duck) as they are related) come close to effecting Chopin in the way that the goose does. However, only the goose with its long neck in flight, its webbed feet tucked back, and its grace as part of an entire flock (especially in a bright blue sky) transforms the piece into genius. Suddenly, the bewildering variety of articulation and flourishes are established. The tempest of triplet figurations and decorative variations become magnificent. And the cumulative virtuosity of the entire piece is made apparent to even the average listener.

only loved at night

I walk down Istedgade and a woman with bright, blonde hair approaches me.  

“Do you want to go with me?” she asks.

“Yes”, I say, “yes I do. But I won’t.”

I continue down the street as if I stumbled upon a crack on the sidewalk (looking back). A blue light shines on the horizon and a warm breeze blows on my face—a breeze I imagine originating from somewhere between her legs.  

“On second thought”, I say, “perhaps we could wager a few krones on a game of backgammon.”

“How odd”, she says walking towards me “because I prefer backgammon to chess.” 

“Is it because backgammon is more like life?” I inquire from the distance.

“Tie me up”, she says, still walking towards me, “yes. Things happen. Logical and illogical. Talent and chance combine. It is an ambiguous world where plans are made and abandoned, and man succumbs to the existential pressure that things beyond his control exert.”

“Indeed”, I say.

“And then there is you and me”, she says stopping in front of me, “you and me. Before money passes hands, and despite the lashes of chaos that strike at us, you and I must smile at the sadistic dominance of one over the other, even say motherly and fatherly words as we resign ourselves to the role of the victor and the vanquished.”

We go to her apartment, where I beat her for three hundred krones.

a mutiny at thermopylae

“If I do something amazing”, she says, “a hundred years from now when the story is told, it will be a fairy tale.”

The more she drifts away, the more grounded I become, the more concise my desires become. So concise, in fact, that when I speak, whether I speak about the collapse of the Danish empire or about the little boy who was almost run over by a car this morning, that what I want is no longer hidden—no longer protected from the formidable no. And so I retreat into a Thermopylae of silence.

However, there is something genuine about desperation, something that defies dishonesty (and silence). And like seamen trapped in the brig of some long barge, my desperation attempts to reach out beyond its purgatory.

“I can’t take it anymore!”, I scream, “Just give it up! Please! I’m begging you!”

“I think your coffee is too hot”, she says, “the glass is cracking.”

the dumbest bird in the world

“The trumpet”, she says, “is the most beautiful sculpture I’ve ever seen.”

The trumpet player smiles and I sigh.

“This is my pet parrot”, he says, “I call him Miles.”

Mother of God! I have yet to do research on parrots and jazz.

“Parrots are the dumbest birds in the world”, I say (I don’t know).

They shake their heads. Ah, the subtly Watson. Only the keenest eye could have detected that. They shake their heads together, and in the same way. I pretend that I don’t notice.

“Do you want to come see my band play tonight?” he asks me.

“I don’t have any money!”I shout, “I spent three hundred krones last night!”

the parrot and jazz

It is a commonly known fact that the three most important colors in jazz are red, yellow, and green. Red for bloodlessness. Yellow for cowardice. And green for greedy, grimy, grabbing bastards. And trumpet is similar to trumpery, which comes from tromper which means to deceive. And that’s what those fucking parrots do.

the woman with bright, blonde hair

The Palae Bar is crowded, and I’m waiting in line. I see her and the trumpet player inside talking at the bar. The line moves a little. Now they’re laughing, and the line moves a little bit more. The parrot is on his shoulder and she strokes it with her finger. Then the line stops. They’re not letting any more people in. And so I stand outside the window of the Palae Bar (clawing, clawing). Not once does she look back. The band is playing and yes—now I do hate jazz.

I leave and walk towards Istedgade. I see a few girls riding their bicycles. It’s still raining, and although I have no money, I’m searching for that woman with bright, blonde hair. Maybe tonight, she’ll let me beat her for what little I have left.

a semi-critique of pneumania by someone I sketched:  burton carl