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The Fifth Wall by Rachel Nagelberg – An Excerpt

By Rachel Nagelberg.



At home, I check the live deconstruction cam and watch Jesse pulling drywall with two shirtless, perspiring Mexican men. We’ve planned another rendezvous for later this evening—I’ll bring over a fancy pizza from Mal’s restaurant, and he’ll supply the beer.

With a couple hours of daylight left, I decide to take a short walk to the bustling part of the Mission to the restaurant, to have an early drink at the bar. The air outside is cool and brisk, but tolerable without a jacket. Clouds move swiftly above buildings, the sun appearing and disappearing like lightning, a false threat of rain. I arrive around five, just as they’re opening up. Inside, Mal’s behind the counter pressing her uterus against the pizza warmer. She spots me out of the corner of her eye.

“Industrial heating pad,” she smirks.

I sit down and she pours me an oversized glass of Barbera. The wine tastes thick, fruity, and delicious. She sucks on an olive, looking bored. I tell her about the Drog and The Last Art exhibit. How everyone’s talking about it being the most controversial show the museum’s ever hosted. Mal says she’d seen an article for it in the Chronicle just last week. She’d had a nightmare that evening about Dolly the Sheep. Dolly hadn’t been a sheep at all, but a costume that her aunt pulled off during a dinner party. The dinner had then gone on as usual dinners go. She had no idea what it meant.

I hadn’t been remembering my dreams for years. But they started returning right after the suicide. They began as flashbacks of the shocking moment when I opened the door—the gun would go off, she’d fall to the floor, and then the bike would fall on top of me and I’d wake up. But recently they’ve begun to shift. Each time the scenario twists, time shifts, and my past memories seem to mingle with the event to create a whole new scene altogether.

As the wine begins to set in, I feel my body altering to a space of slightly more detachment. I smile, feeling hot blood flowing through my veins.

Mal rushes from the kitchen and serves a large steaming pizza to a table of two. She walks back over to the bar.

“Check this out.” She thrusts her iPhone in my face, and I examine the brightly lit screen.

The becoming of human,” I read aloud, “—unlike all other images or fakes, runs via a culture of total control. This strange
desire, marooned in the abysmal darkness of this city—I am nothing, you are nothing. This is something we understand. This is our only armor.” I look up from the screen. “The Oracle’s having a good day.”

Mal shrugs and quickly slips the phone back into her pocket.

For the past five or six months, Mal’s been receiving unsourced text messages from the same phone number, which we’ve named “the Oracle.” They arrive erratically, often skipping days or weeks, in paragraph-long stanzas brimming with ontologi-
cal desperation, never demanding a response, as if calling out from a void of electric currents, of sonic depths. They seem to at once predict the future, indicate the present, and symbolize the past. She’s begun to trust in them—messages that seem to come from no one and are written to no one, but are—despite intention—for her. I’d Googled the number—a Manhattan area code. She once tried to call it but it just rang and rang. She pours me a second glass of wine, this time a Chianti. “It’s like I can’t remember my life before the Oracle.”

“You can’t imagine living without him,” I say.

“Or her,” she says.

“Or her,” I repeat. “Or it. Who says it has to be human?”

A man walks into the restaurant and takes a seat at the bar beside me. Mal smiles and hands him a menu. She pours ice water into his glass, and then curses under her breath—she keeps forgetting she’s not supposed to serve water anymore unless the customer asks, and plus she’s already on thin ice, due to the other week when she got written up for ranting to a customer about the degenerative qualities of consuming gluten—obviously not the best selling point in a restaurant that makes all its dough off of dough. The man sitting next to me turns to me and smiles. Mal runs to check on a table aggressively waving their hands.

“Robert,” the man announces, holding out his hand. I shake it, frowning.

“You look even more stunning in person,” he says.

I stare at him with great confusion. I have no idea who this man is. I look around for Mal, but she’s cleaning up a spill at a table.

“What a trip, getting here.” He thumbs the laminated menu in a clockwise motion. Wire glasses frame his long, thin face. His short, dry hair a dark brown specked with gray. His other features are indistinguishable. “I’m so glad I made it on time. On the way driving over, I almost ran into a deer! A deer—I’m telling you, but it was already dead. It was in a heap in the middle of the street. I was coming from a job down in the Peninsula—it was right near the turn-off on 280. Just a big, old heap. And it was pretty fresh—not too much blood or anything. And it was weird—nobody else was around, no people walking, no cars. It’s pretty rare—a deer in the city. I hadn’t seen a deer in a long time. You know, I used to do a bit of taxidermy with my pops growing up. So I just decided, you know, why not just take it? Why don’t I just hoist this baby into my trunk and put it in the walk-in cooler at work tomorrow morning?” The man looks at me and grins.

I stare at him. “There’s a dead deer in your car.”

“I know, how funny is that!” He laughs and looks down at his menu.

Mal hurries to the bar looking exhausted. “Fucking Alexa just called in sick. I’m so tired of this bullshit.” I drain the last of my wine and slam the empty glass down in front of her.

She glares at me. The dead deer man says he’ll have what I’m having. She studies him, then looks at me. I give her the look. She pours us both a glass of Chianti and leaves the open bottle on the counter, rushing back towards a dinging bell from the

“You know taxidermy’s a dying art form. You got these new age people all obsessed about the implications of hunting—I mean, don’t get me wrong—these days I think ideally you should either hunt to eat the meat or find the exotic creature dead—but there’s little respect for the art of preservation that goes into really high-quality taxidermy. There’s something about experiencing the girth of an animal in its real flesh. You can feel its power. Sure, we have those nature planet shows—the places those cameras go! Amazing stuff.” The man laughs. “But you can’t feel a real presence from a TV show, you know? So
what looks good on this menu, anyhow?”

My head feels dizzy. A throbbing develops in my temples. A woman approaches the bar wearing a long wool coat and dark, red lipstick. She looks around aimlessly, then spots the man beside me.

“I’m so sorry I’m late!” she says.

“Excuse me?” The man looks perplexed. He looks at me, and then back at her. His eyes widen.

“Rebecca?” he asks. The woman extends her hand.

I drain the wine and leave immediately. The cold bay air stings my face and neck.

Pizza malfunction, I text Jesse on the curb. Need assistance. HELP!

Meet at my place, he writes back. Running late. Door should be open.

I hop on the 19 Muni toward Potrero, a living, breathing mass. We climb on and we climb off, the bus stops and releases, consumes, moves forward, stops and releases, consumes us. The sounds of creaking plastic seats, rubbing nylon material, shuffling footsteps. A woman sitting behind me depicts a violent rape scenario in a conversation with herself. A plastic bottle rolls up and down the aisles. A young man coughs brutally into his sleeve.

Fucking dead deer in trunks. The wine surges through my bloodstream.

Jesse’s sweet old dog, Maddie, greets me at the door with an awkward wobble. Then she bangs her head against the wall. I feel like crying.

Jesse’s house is large and drafty, filled with mismatched furniture, tools, and dog hair. I run my fingers along the smooth granite kitchen counter lined with a gorgeous repurposed wooden trim.

I pull out a Pacifico from his fridge and sit on the sofa. I take off my shoes. I lay out on the sofa. I prop myself up with my elbow in a more attractive position. I wait. What kind of person leaves their door unlocked in this city? Especially with this senior citizen. I gape at Maddie, who sniffs my foot repeatedly. Then she hobbles over to a floor cushion and smacks her body to the ground. Sounds emanate from the door. I stand up. Jesse walks in with a great energy. His grin exceeds the walls of the room. I fling myself at him.

He boils pasta and cooks a homemade mushroom sauce that smells heavenly as I pace around him telling him about my day—the Drog, the dead deer man, the crazy people on the bus. It’s been just over twenty-four hours since the incident with the pickaxe and already the whole world feels like it’s shifted to some disproportionate degree, and I am somehow in the centre, spiralling, attracting destructive forces and energies orbiting around me like planets.

He had an interesting experience today, too, he says. The reason he was late is because he stopped by IKEA on the way home to pick up some cheap bathroom mats for his sister. He was rushing through the store—it was about to close—when he came upon a pregnant woman having a panic attack in a corner of the bathroom section. Apparently she’d been trying to find the exit for hours, but the store kept leading her to different rooms—the poor woman couldn’t escape! He left the mats and helped lead the shaking woman out of the store to her car, where he sat with her for a few minutes making sure she was okay. She’d left her cell phone in the car, along with her emergency granola bar, which she inhaled while Jesse patted her back until she was ready to drive home.

I tell him how IKEA uses a specific type of coercive architecture designed to force you through the entire building before you can exit. That there are a bunch of interesting essays written about it on JSTOR. He says it sounds like it’s right up my alley.

Later, after we fuck on the bench to the kitchen table, I lay awake buzzing in the arms of Jesse, while he snores with the
mysterious sounds of an old man. A calm, collectedness washes over me, a sense of security. Asleep, Jesse is just a breathing body. All of his energy is contained in this one action — the pure, peaceful gesture of breath. His shin rests against my calf; my face nestles against his clavicle—time slows down to merely the placement of bodies. Nothing else exists but the two of us.





Rachel Nagelberg is an American novelist, poet, and conceptual artist living in Los Angeles. The Fifth Wall is her debut novel.



In this debut novel by Rachel Nagelberg, conceptual artist Sheila B. Ackerman heeds a mysterious urge to return to her estranged family home and arrives at the exact moment of her mother’s suicide. In an attempt to cope with and understand her own self destructive tendencies, Sheila plants a camera on the lawn outside the house to film 24/7 while workers deconstruct the physical object that encases so many of her memories. Meanwhile, as she begins to experience frequent blackouts, she finds herself hunting a robot drone through the San Francisco MOMA with a baseball bat, part of a provocative, technological show, The Last Art, and resuming a violent affair with her college professor. With a backdrop of post-9/11 San Francisco, Sheila navigates the social-media-obsessed, draught-ridden landscape of her life, exploring the frail line between the human impulse to control everything that takes place around us and the futility of excessive effort to do so. The Fifth Wall allows readers to explore from a safe distance the recesses of their own minds, leaving the haunting feeling of depths that yet remain unknown.



Set into motion by an inexplicable, traumatic and violent real-life event, Rachel Nagelberg’s brilliant first novel begins at the limits of contemporary art, as it attempts to reflect the ungraspable present. Born in 1984 into a familiarly frayed American family,  her protagonist Sheila B. Ackerman, a former art student, is neither especially likable or unlikeable: that is, she’s incredibly real. A close artistic cousin to Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage and Natasha Stagg’s Surveys, The Fifth Wall is a new kind of novel.  Female and philosophical, emotion flows through the book across a dense and familiarly incomprehensible web of information, from satellite selfies to awkward sex to internet beheadings and shamanic tourism in the third world. Nagelberg’s engrossing narration is littered with stunning perception: We look into the distance to be able to see what’s right in front of us. She writes without affect, and with unselfconscious acuity. That is, she writes really well.

Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick.

Nagelberg has a true gift, able to write gorgeously on the line level with unctuous images. And simultaneously, there’s a readable page-turner here. Most of us are lucky to do one of those, which is a testament to the singular talent. This book cascades beauty and meaning and truth.

Joshua Mohr, author of All This Life and Termite Parade, a New York Times Editor’s Choice pick.

The Fifth Wall crackles with braininess and sex. It’s hallucinatory and interactive and funny and sad and it has something incandescent to show you.

Stephen Beachy, author of The Whistling Song and Distortion, and professor at the University of San Francisco.



First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 6th, 2017.