(urth) Short Story 60: Forelesen part 1

Marc Aramini marcaramini at gmail.com
Sun Sep 14 11:10:07 PDT 2014


“Forlesen” first appeared in *Orbit 14* in 1974 and is reprinted in *Castle
of Days*.


Emanuel Forlesen awakens knowing nothing but his name, not even what human
beings look like or if he is one himself. “The rest came later and is
therefore suspect, colored by rationalization and the expectations of the
woman herself and the other people.” His wife is making breakfast and
implores him to read the orientation. He says, “I don’t remember a damn
thing.” He identifies the oddly deformed hands at the end of his legs as
shoes, then realizes he is naked.

Getting dressed, he questions his wife about the layout of the house as she
cooks breakfast in the bedroom . She says her name is Edna Forlesen and
that the material indicates she is his wife. When he looks into the mirror
he thinks, “The man in the mirror was not he. The image was older, fatter,
meaner, more cunning, and stupider than he knew himself to be, and he
raised his hands (the man in the mirror did likewise) to touch his
features; they were what they should have been and he turned away.”

On top of his orientation material is a mimeographed sheet welcoming him to
the planet Planet. It indicates his condition is normal and he should not
be agitated or fearful – capacities which “are to be regarded as
incapacities.” The briefing tells him anything he may have remembered upon
awakening is false and warns him not to be late for work. He must go to the
house on his right, not left. The packet contains his job assignment and a
table of commonly used “waits and measures” which are more important than
the books.

His egg and coffee both taste oily. His name is spelled wrong on the job
assignment and he learns that there are 240 ours in each day. The blue book
is titled *How to Drive*. The rules include never picking up hitchhikers,
waving, shouting, or invading the privacy of other drivers. He looks out
the window and sees a bald man with a gold tooth and a mole looking at him
from the window of a nearby house, and wonders that the man is not him at
any age, because he feels it should be. Edna accuses him of reading the red
book when he voices this sentiment.

The red book’s cover shows people surrounding a winged being. The left side
is printed in scarlet in a language he doesn’t understand, though he does
not believe the translations match up very well. The black print describes
the twelve natures of Death and the Dead:

Those who become new gods, for whom new universes are born. Second those
who praise. Third those who fight as soldiers in the unending war with
evil. Fourth those who amuse themselves among flowers and sweet streams
with sports. Fifth those who dwell in gardens of bliss, or are tortured.
Sixth those who continue as in life. Seventh those who turn the wheel of
the universe. Eighth those who find in their graves their mother’s wombs
and in one life circle forever. Ninth ghosts. Tenth those born again as men
in their grandson’s time. Eleventh those who return as beasts or trees. And
last those who sleep.

 Edna rushes him to work, and when he spies, “Remember that if he does not
go, you and your children will starve” in her “Helpful Hints for
Homemakers”, he leaves readily. The door lock behinds him.

He does not have to do anything to start his yellow car. The car
accelerates slowly even when the pedal is pressed entirely to the floor and
on his path he sees black and orange signs which read HIDDEN DRIVES. He
heads towards Model Pattern Products, speaking with his car for directions.
The light at which he must turn emits green and red flashes at quarter
second intervals.

The new street lifts beneath him and he stops to wonder what his job might
be and if there were not some way he and his wife might be together. He
walks to the rail and looks down to see what supports the elevated road,
noticing the shadows of broken and twisted shapes under the road. A blue
police car painted with a fantastic design (“a mingling of fabulous beasts
with plants and what appeared to be wholly abstract symbols”) pulls over.
The cop prompts him to get back in his car. Forlesen catches a glimpse of
the pillar (or something under the road) moving and hesitates, then asks
the cop to come look. He feels something at his spine and turns to see that
the cop wears no pants and is connected to his car by six or more tubes the
color of straw and blood. Forlesen is not scared and gets in his car. He
asks the cop if the pillars are falling, and the cop threatens him with his
gun unless he continues on his way.

Here the car “sped to the top of the high, white, billowing undulations of
the highway … and descended in a way that made him almost believe himself a
hawk – or the operator of some fantastic machine that could itself soar
like a bird – or even such a winged being as had appeared on the cover of
the red book.” He sees snowy clouds that could be other highways.

Forlesen picks up a hitchhiker named Abraham Beale dressed in a very old
fashioned manner and leaves Forlesen with the impression of a cricket. He
says Forlesen is awake while so many of the other drivers are asleep.
Abraham is looking for work since he lost his old job – he has worked as a
lawyer, soldier, on the railroad, and even as a reaper mechanic. Abraham
was the oldest of thirteen children; he lost the farm willed him by his
father on the same day he was to receive it when the state took it for a
highway. He says he received a check in restitution which he planted, but
it didn’t grow. He drew the interest from his investment but it came to
nothing, then mentions an apple tree on his land that died little by
little, and how his brother Avery let a blue slate game cock kill his
father’s Shanghai Rooster.

They comes upon buildings whose roofs are “jagged saw blades fronted with
glass.” Abraham shows Forlesen a blank page from his bank book and says
those little numbers are all that is left of his father’s farm, then tells
Forlesen the difference between having only a little money and vast wealth,
and that a man with a significant fortune can accomplish what a poor man
can never do, such as influence legislature and buy things at bulk prices.
Forlesen thinks that the buildings are intentionally ugly and that some
seem built to defend against attack. They encounter unbroken mustangs, and
Abraham Beale leaves excitedly to see if he can find work. The mustangs are
being herded into a building with a dog's head sign above it (later
revealed to be a dog food company).

Forlesen arrives at work and parks on a steep gravel slope, beginning his
long, pointless day. Even though he arrives on time, a woman with glasses,
Miss Fawn, tells him he is late and goes over the schedule for the day. The
real go-getters, according to Mr. Frick, show up twenty minutes early to
play cards and have coffee. She reveals Forlesen's overseer Mr. Fields is a
“real supervisor”. She asks if Forlesen is married and takes him to Mr.
Fields' small office. It is decorated with two photos - “a beach with rocks
and waves, and a snow-clad mountain) and two realistic landscapes both of
rolling green countryside dotted with cows and trees).” Mr. Fields is
described as youngish and speaks in vague sports metaphors: “I need men
who'll back my play all the way, and maybe even run in front a little.
Sharpies. … We're a team.” Their function is to make money for the company.
He tells him that someday his office will be Forlesen's, which he tells
“every guy in the subdivision.” (This later comes true when Fields dies
during the lunch hour)

Mr. Fields takes Forlesen to his desk, and Forlesen notices that the
building is beset by smells (some foul, some sickeningly sweet) and
extremes in hot and cold. There is a jackhammer in the background since it
is the “new” wing. He is placed in a big room with glass partitions, the
windows covered up with splintering boards, the floor suggesting charred
wood. Fields says there is prestige in sitting next to a window, and
Forlesen suggests using the partition glass for window glass so that they
can look outside. “Hell, no,” Fields responds, before saying management is
an art and a science, telling him there is a list of his responsibilities

“As Fields passed behind one of the rippled glass partitions on his way to
the door, the distortions in the glass caused his image to change from that
of the somewhat dumpy and rumpled man with whom Forlesen was now slightly
familiar; behind the glass he was taller, exceedingly neat, and blank
faced. And he wore glasses.”

The phone rings – it is Mr. Franklin calling for Cappy Dillingham. He tells
Forlesen the Creativity Group has been moved to “oh seventy-eight” sharp,
outside the drilling and boring shop. Miss Fawn arrives to reveal Cappy
died to the caller, then returns the phone to Forlesen. Franklin tells
Forlesen that they create “creativity itself – we learn to be creative” and
warns him that Mr. Frick is firmly behind the meeting. Through the glass,
Miss Fawn appears to become a prettier mannequin.

Here Forlesen says, “I thought we'd just take some clay or something and
start in.” and suggests Franklin ask Frick for a meeting room, which could
“save” the Creativity Group. When he sees the stack of paper Miss Fawn has
left for him, Forlesen pushes them away and exclaims, “The hell with you.”

In the old, metal desk amongst miscellaneous trash he finds a dead insect
and notices the sharp smell of apples, as well as five empty file folders,
including one with a column of “twenty-seven figures written on it in
pencil, the first and lowest being 8,750 and the last and highest 12,500;
they were not totaled.”

He sees a memo to management personnel with his tasks (maintaining profit,
reducing costs, reporting violations, etc) which he throws away. Forlesen
then finds the Leadership Problem quiz, and he confronts problem #105. It
details the unsatisfactory work of secretary Enid Fenton, who asked for a
transfer and might be considering resignation. The question presents seven
options which include firing, fining, reassignment, and even asking other
members of the Leadership group. Forlesen calls the extension of Eric
Fairchild to inquire about the problem; he is told he can check multiple
answers if they aren't mutually exclusive. Fairchild asks his secretary
Miss Fenton to fetch the Leadership file so he can take a look at it.
Forlesen notices the name and wants to know how her work has been

Fairchild insists, “The whole essence of Leadership Training involves
presenting the participants with structured problems. … This is a
structured problem.” Forlesen suggests he take his secretary aside and tell
her how her work is unsatisfactory and hear what she had to say. Explaining
how the computer scores, Fairchild says only the machine knows the right
answers – but “maybe there isn't any right answer at all.” He also reveals
that the grades range from 757 to 49. “There have been these rumors about
Mr. Frick coming in and asking the computer questions, but it's not true –
frankly, I don't think Mr. Frick even knows how to program.”

After talking about the death of Cappy, Forlesen states he is returning the
problem under protest and hangs up. His desk tells him Fairchild will call
back and tells him promotions are offered to those who “fit in.” Fairchild
does call back to explain how Miss Fenton creates strife in the office by
sometimes getting mad and sometimes thinking men are serious when they “kid
around with the girls.” The other girls don't like her, either. Forlesen
suggests he makes Miss Fenton his permanent secretary to find out “what's
wrong with this girl,” though he doubts anything is.

Miss Fawn calls him to meet Mr. Freeling (who only speaks in sailing
metaphors and whose plaque is more modern than D'Andreas, but made of
plastic rather than brass). Through Freeling's window he can see the
highway. He says Forlesen is there because the company feels he can find
his own work, and warns, “if you get the unions down on us we're going to
throw you overboard quick” (see Historical Resonance and the Importance of
Frick and Coal below).

Mr. Freeling ends his spiel by asking what Forlesen wanted to see him
about. “I don't … You said you wanted to see me.” Mr. Freeling has nothing
further to add, and Forlesen asks Miss Fawn how he should know company
policy. “It's in the air … You breathe it.”

He then finds the drilling room for his Creativity Group and meets Mr.
Fields outside, who says he is going to make it “come hell or high water.”
A man with white hair is filling one of the bores with oil as another signs
a parody of a popular song. They sit down to watch a movie titled

A man near the front objects: “It seems to me … [this meeting/movie]
implies that creativity is automatically going to point you toward some
solution you didn't see before, and I feel that anyone who believes that's
gong to happen – anyway, in most cases – doesn't know what the hell they're
talking about.” The group then discusses how creativity can help make a
“nontrivial elaboration” of a problem before talking of synergy and

Fields says, “creativity isn't about making new things – like some statue
or something nobody wants. What creativity is about is solving company
problems -”. Fields has enlisted Miss Fawn so that he can escape the group,
so she interrupts that he is urgently needed on the phone.

When the film finally plays, the sound doesn't work as the actors discuss
“promoting creativity in the educational system.” Franklin explains that it
was photographed and taped from a real teacher's discussion, then recreated
by actors to reproduce the debate.

Forlesen goes home for lunch. The signs with HIDDEN DRIVES on their fronts
read SLOW CHILDREN on the reverse. His wife doesn't recognize him and notes
how tired he looks. She says he will get promoted after lunch because “a
woman knows.” She rushes him to finish lunch and get back to work. The
coffee is still oily. He returns her watch and she tells him to leave.
Forlesen says, “I don't think there's any purpose in most of it … but
there's plenty to do [at work]”.

` She says she has nothing to do at all and Forlesen recriminates her for
not preparing a better lunch. As Edna exclaims that lunch is “nothing”,
Forlesen realizes he doesn't know her as well as the people at work. She
walks with him to see him leave.

On the way back to work in front of the dog-food factory, he sees Abraham
Beale's hat floating in the wind. Miss Fawn has become Mrs. Frost and asks
him if he is ready for orientation as she leads him to Field's desk, also
revealing that Mr. Fields has died and that he was cremated and buried in
the vault behind the pictures. Forlesen would prefer to be buried at home.

“At 125 hours Forlesen was notified of his interdepartmental training
transfer” [even though this should have been during his lunch our, this is
the only point in the text that uses hour rather than our] and the route to
his new desk takes him through the lobby, where he sees the face of Abraham
Beale on the large medallion in the floor, with the name Adam Bean under
it. His new chief, Fleer, only speaks in skiing metaphors. Here they are
supposed to develop an understanding of the “real, realistic business
world” and play a lot of “Bet-Your-Life, the management-managing real-life

Forlesen begins to play Bet-Your-Life (holding down a position for Ffoulks)
after Fleer scrawls a note with his bidding and some other instructions
before leaving (see Bet-Your-Life Minigame below). It is refereed by a man
in a red jacket and another man with a bristling mustache says that the
rules in the brown book can be changed if a quorum agrees (which is defined
as three quarters of those present but never less than seven). Forlesen
owns one hundred percent of the stock in a company called International
Toys and Foods and writes “BID 34 ASK 32 FFOULKS” and the man with the
mustache indicates Forlesen will never get thirty-two for his holdings.

Forlesen says he has a bid to buy at 34 while he is looking in the brown
book. In the book, he sees an earlier conversation about teamwork and a
coach upstairs that he had with Fields, but the sports metaphor “good
field” is changed to “good Fields.” After the man with the bristly mustache
buys five hundred shares at the lower price to sell them back to Forlesen,
the referee calls a coffee break (with Spam and Churkey [a naked-necked
chicken introduced from Transylvania well suited to warm environments]).
Outside, the man with the mustache boasts that he is about to “clip” some
guy in there, not recognizing Forlesen, but Forlesen leaves before he is
forced to buy back his own stock at a higher price.

He meets a woman who looks like Miss Fawn whose voice he recognizes from
his car – Miss Fedd used to work in traffic. Forlesen says he is afraid to
read the ending of the brown book, and she says it is the red book he
should fear: “It's the opposite of a mystery – everyone stops before the

She sends him to see Mr. Frick, and Forlesen thinks of his most duplicitous
actions: cheating the man with the mustache and baiting Fairchild. He
enters a room that seems to be made of “bronze and black wood and red
wool.” Mr. Frick is the man he saw through the window at the start of his
day, with a mole and gold tooth. Frick says that they played “prisoner's
base” one day and that he envies Forlesen even though Frick was the one who
ascended to the top. He says, “You won't believe it, but you've had the
best of it.” He presents Forlesen with a box as a token of his colleagues'
regard and dismisses him from work.

On the way home he sees a young couple arriving and thinks of their fate to
separate at the punch in clock and meet uncomfortably for lunch later out
of a sense of duty. He sees black and orange machines eating the houses
beyond the light, and his path is filed with YIELD signs.

At home, Forlesen parks over the oil spot and sees a man in a dark suit
with a black bag at his feet who will not speak to him. Forleson's grown
son greets him with a large box exactly like that of his watch, of
red-brown wood and lined with pinkish-white silk. The son picks him up and
throws him in the coffin, saying that it will be tight but it has “a hell
of a good engine.”

Forlesen finds it more comfortable than he thought, and is offered a choice
for his Explainer since he has reached the end of his life. He brings in
the small man from outside, who asks, “What's it gong to be … or is it
going to be nothing?”

Forlesen notes that his coat's threads “constituted the universe in
themselves, that they were serpents and worms and roots, the black tracks
of forgotten rockets across a dark sky, the sine waves of the radiation of
the cosmos. The Explainer says that his wife is dead, and asks, “What'll it
be? Doctor, priest, philosopher, theologian, actor, warlock, National Hero,
aged loremaster, or novelist?”

Forlesen does't know and says he wants to think of his box as a bed, but it
feels like a ship that will set him free.

The Explainer says he may have been oppressed by demons, been revived by
aliens, or suffer from a tumor. Forlesen says, “I want to know if it's
meant anything … if what I suffered – if it's been worth it.”

“No …. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe.”


A clear satire on the working world, a lifetime of banal middle-management
ineffectiveness is compressed into one long day in which nothing much is
accomplished. Individual wants and desires are subjugated to a corporate
existence and the only expression of uniqueness becomes hackneyed metaphors
or hobbies such as sailing or skiing, and these hobbies are all immediately
reflected back into describing the business model.

Obviously, Emmanuel Forlesen represents the third generation in this closed
system (the E.F.’s), with the first generation being that of Abraham Beale
(A.B.’s) and the second Cappy Dillinghams (C.D.’s), The sequential
lettering of these generations creates a sameness to them, and in turn
Forlesen and others must orient the next generation of G.H's. The plaques
on the wall of those who came before are small and inconsequential
memorials, and there is every indication they went through much the same
nonsense. Emmanuel Forlesen’s predecessor, Cappy, asked a question about
problem 104 just as Forlesen asked one of 105. The fourth generation has
already begun to show up on Emmanuel’s day (though there is some indication
that minor characters linger over from one day to the next).


While actually determining which of the many possible scenarios presented
fits all the small details of Forlesen’s life is difficult (scenarios
presented by both by the creature who answers Forlesen's questions and by
the book describing the types of dead), the overall metaphor is quite easy
to restate: management work in the corporate world is a kind of hell,
aimless and purposeless, where there are things to do, but ultimately these
things signify nothing, a repetition of empty goals that make an entire
lifetime seem lost in the same meaningless and spirit killing tasks day
after day, where nothing is ever definitely accomplished and little of
value is actually completed. All the days of pointlessness become one
life-time consuming day.

The artificial nature of the struggle is highlighted by the mechanical,
rote and uninspired presentation of innovation innate in every task
Forlesen undertakes, from the quiz which is almost an opinion poll on how a
real situation should be handled to the insidious creativity exercise.
Indeed, the word hell and damn appears many times in dialogue in Forlesen.
While this is not preponderent, it is an unusual amount of repetition for
Wolfe. Clearly, Forlesen descended to a kind of hell on his way to work
after the undulating height of the highway. The charred wooden floors and
windows covered with splintering boards in his office might even reflect
the fate of Abraham Beale's apple tree.

“Forlesen” confronts naturalism head on, one of the dominant trends in the
literature of 19th and 20th century America: the idea that man is a part of
nature and responds to societal demands is a cornerstone of naturalist
novels. In effect, this ideology negates free will and makes man just
another animal responding to stimuli. Here, Forlesen is trapped in a system
which he cannot understand (because there is no understanding it), and he
simply does what is expected, for the most part. While Forlesen fails to
escape, Wolfe manages to highlight how unnatural the idea of modern
societal naturalism is: real freedom is expressed in the character of
Abraham Beale, who probably lives slightly longer than others in their
respective generations because of the variety of his life experiences,
while Cappy Dillingham, Mr. Fields, and Forlesen only have the lifespan of
ephemerids. (However, it is not clear that Abraham survives – he, too, may
have become dog food under the modern operating parameters).

Forlesen means “to lose completely” and forlorn is derived from it. When
Forlesen looks at his own face in the mirror, he sees a man much cruder,
stupider, and less refined than he knows himself to be – but to the touch,
it is his face. Everything here is a reflection of what society sees – he
knows himself to be different than the exterior reflected back at him.
While there may be something more to this “broken mirror” than portraying
the difference between external and internal perceptions, it also works to
show that people in this world (and the business world as a whole) are
nothing more than external perceptions.


The number twelve reoccurs several times throughout – Abraham has 12
siblings, there are 12 types of dead, there are 12-sided dice in the bird
cages in the bet your life mini-game, and perhaps this makes some reference
to the 12 tribes of Israel or even the 12 apostles. [Of course, Ishmael
also had 12 sons]. (Levi did not receive land and Joseph’s inheritance was
effectively doubled – perhaps Abraham Beale somehow echoes Levi’s tribe of
priests, though more likely the obvious name of Abraham indicates that he
holds that prominent figure of patriarch of the tribes and summons the
world of the Old Testament – closer to being cast out of Eden but still
engaged in a close relationship with the Creator God.)

Highlighting the possibility that Abraham’s covenant with God is
referenced, the name Emanuel also has a very prominent position in the Old
Testament. Abrahamic religions are messianic in nature, and one of the
possible “anointed ones” according to a slight New Testament revision is
known as Immanuel, “God is with us”. The difference between the Jewish
conception of the Messiah and the Christian acknowledgment of Jesus lies in
the nature of that salvation: for Christians, that salvation comes in the
form of forgiveness and an eternal heaven and redemption from original sin
and the innately sinful state of man thanks to Adam’s fall (the founder of
Modern Pattern Products is Adam Bean), whereas for Jews the Messiah is
usually considered a more secular savior of this world. “Forlesen” rather
forcefully considers if the things of this world are worth enduring the
weight of meaningless banality to attain.

Abraham says that he planted his inheritance, which grew to nothing, and
Adam Bean has Abraham's face. The sides of the cop cars have fantastic
beings and plants depicted on their sides, and Edna's name is derived from
the Garden of Eden – it is impossible for Forlesen to stay with her when he
must enter the secular working world, and the door to his house is locked
behind him. This examination of the fall of man being linked to the
creation of modern structures such as highways and corporations strikes a
chord – going to work is categorically the loss of the innocent garden
paradise in the pursuit of transitory money, unfortunately something
necessary to keep a family from starving.


While the physical description does not match a historical, nonfictional
model, it is clear that the most important man of Forlesen’s generation at
Model Pattern Products is the gold toothed man with the mole whom he sees
at the start of his day, Mr. Frick. Forlesen tells his wife that he is
surprised that he is not that man. “Why should it be you?” his wife asks.
“I just felt it should, somehow.”

At the end of the day Mr. Frick says that it is he who envies Forlesen, who
had “the better of it”, but Forlesen disagrees. Frick appears in dialogue
throughout, and at one point it is even rumored that he talks to the
computer directly, though the speaker does not believe Frick is a
programmer. Frick also says that he played prisoner's base one day with
Forlesen (though it is a real children's game, perhaps Frick played
prisoner's base the day depicted in “Forlesen” - his own company the prison
that ensnares). Frick gives him a gift at the end of the day in a box
similar to his coffin.

The real life Henry Clay Frick, a leading business industrialist of the
late 19th and early 20th century, at one time regarded as the most hated
man in America, helped create the giant US Steel company the Pennsylvania
railroad. At one time he controlled the majority of the coal output from
Pennsylvania. He was a partner of Andrew Carnegie, who eventually tried to
get Frick to retire and tried to avoid giving him a voice in the company.
Frick was anti-union and during one strike he erected a barbed wire fence
around his mill’s property and Pinkerton agents actually killed nine
workers. The buildings in the business district of Wolfe’s novella appear
“surrounded by a high, rusty wire fence, with a barren area of asphalt or
gravel beyond it as though to provide (Forlesen know the thought was
ridiculous) a clear field of fire for defenders within.” Perhaps the life
of Henry Frick and his control of coal and resistance to unionized labor
serve as the basis for the recreation of Model Pattern Products in some
afterlife or “model” reconstruction. If Forlesen thinks that he should be
Frick in some fashion, perhaps this is the hellish punishment of Henry Clay
Frick, now dead.

When discussing the Creativity Group with Franklin, Forlesen says they
should just start in with clay. This echoes both the creation story with
man's start in the garden and the middle name of the historical Frick.
Interestingly, Frick was also blamed for the Johnstown Flood, which killed
2,200 people.
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