Debunking Sisyphus


The constant churning; the repetitive ending. Such is the life of Sisyphus, an ancient Greek heel, former king and eternal endurer. He’s the one with the rock and the hill, forced for all time to push the stone to nearly its apex, only to have the boulder slip and return to its original, cradled position at the bottom. The result of a life led deceitfully. Or, more specifically, for hooking up with innumerable wives, sisters and daughters in his back-handed pursuit to rule Ephyra.

Dave Norkel, a twerpy graduate student at New York’s Fordham University, doesn’t believe the hype. The bookwormish nob of a young man has spent more than a year at this ecclesiastical school, focused on debunking the long-held mythos, convinced that no one (real or imagined) would ever waste so much endless time on such a fruitless pursuit as pushing boulders against gravity. “I have spent my entire life knowing that the tale of Sisyphus cannot be true, and I am going to spend my every waking hour to prove my hypothesis,” says Norkel, trying to impress me with using the word “hypothesis” in conversation.

Yet here I sit, in a grad dorm at this Bronx-area Jesuit temple of higher learning, cracking open two bottles of cold beer and persistently offering one to Norkel, who continues to refuse. “I politely refuse due to my needs to continue my scholarly pursuits,” quaffs Norkel. “I cannot imagine what this would do to my studies.” Each time I press the issue a little more, he seems to falter. “Oh, for heavens sake,” he says. I believe for a moment that the bottle will reach his palm, he’ll take a swig and the night will go from bust to boom. But, just at the moment of contact, Norkel’s eyes return to the search results of JSTOR, the online journalistic database, and he alights with a squeal back to his MacBook Pro.

Norkel is twenty four, deep into second-level studies at one of America’s most prestigious universities. He is also a man, who – presumably – wants to do things like drink and carouse and, you know, actually leave his squat cinderblock dorm for the endless bacchanal of New York City that is only a train ride away. But his willowy body seems etched forever into the stiff wooden chair, and his arching back slopes up just below the shoulders, then sinks away into the sides of a paunchy midsection. It’s as if he’s been trying to lift himself up over and over, only to have the weight settle down at the bottom again. He squints his rubbery face closer to the computer screen and scribbles down a note about the impossible slope of ancient hillsides in Greece, recently calculated by archeologists.

On night three with Norkel, he suddenly proclaims to no one in particular that he has a date! Perfect, I say aloud, a chance to get out of his musty hovel and actually experience the world. But the effort turns out, maddeningly, to be impossible. Norkel can’t be bothered to confirm the time and location with whatever unlucky woman waits patiently on the other end of his iPhone text messages. “I stand firm in my belief that if she is in pursuit of me, she should be bending to my whims.” I plead with him to chill out.

He works the keyboard for a while, offering irritating counter-suggestions to her very modest dinner date proposals. Instead of Maxwell’s on Third, Norkel wants Dumpy’s Pizza, a place that he’s familiar with the bathroom and knows the food will be served quickly, allowing for him to return to his schoolwork. She thinks DiMassio’s has “a fun menu,” but he wants to grab a pudding from the vending machine down the hall from his room. The texts trail off into the ether, and I feel my own stone falling from my throat to the pit of my stomach. Again, I plead with him to just be chill. He thinks I’m a moron. That I don’t get it. Another night in with this snotty dorkus, cackling over notes about boulder trajectory and the folly of Greek belief.

I check back in with Norkel a couple of weeks later, to see if the pale, wormy manchild has made any progress on life — forget the anti-Sisyphus thesis. But he seems to have slunk even further into the bottom of his own hill, wearing thin the wooden seat of his dorm desk. I half-heartedly offer him a beer, but the underdeveloped kid doesn’t even look up, and I realize that maybe the real struggle is my own, trying to reach the top of this impossible peak known as Dave Norkel’s social life. “I heard back from the modern woman who attempted to ensnare me in romance. She told me she had intercourse with a gentlemen, which she immediately regretted, because I simply would not go have a meal with her. Did I ruin her life? Or did she try to ruin mine. My hypothesis,” he said, emphasizing the last word, “is I, to use the parlance of our times, bit the bullet.” And I realize that no matter what the little asshole ends up finding — Sisyphus is real. ✦