Mark Blumenfeld, who apparently died in May, led a troubled life. He had over a thousand friends on Facebook, although it speaks volumes that few commented when his cousin announced his death. For my part, I waited several days to write this obituary, unsure of whether this was yet another stunt, or “regeneration”, from someone who regularly purged his Friends list and changed his identity. The facts I repeat here are true to the best of my knowledge, although I never had much confirmation of any of them.
I met him at university in Osaka, where he was known to his fellow students as the Prince of Darkness. He coveted the image of a comic-book villain, lurking at the sidelines in a black raincoat, surveying the crowd with the glowering air of a Jewish Terminator. He had few friends, and had the unerring habit of losing those that he made. When reminiscing with him about our classmates, I found myself faced with a long list of slights real and imagined, people who had wronged him, and fellow students who seemed to have insulted him unawares. He alluded in conversations to childhood illnesses and teenage ostracism, setting up a script for his life of exclusion embraced, and a simmering resentment directed towards in-crowds that he would never have really wanted to join.
He finished his education with an LPT1, a powerful qualification in the world of Japanese, where a bachelor’s degree is rated as a mere LPT2 and a high school diploma as LPT3. Getting an LPT1 is not impossible, but it is the mark of a superior intellect: an ability to grapple with one of the world’s most difficult languages, at a level reasonably describable as fluent. It was, to some extent, the only proof that Mark ever had that he really was as smart as he thought he was. Coupled with computing experience that favoured his obsessive, focussed nature, he seemed to have had a brief and successful career in information technology, although by the time we met again, he claimed to be making a living from online poker, which he fit in around caring for his elderly parents.
After 15 years, Facebook brought us back in touch in 2009, coincidentally when I was heading for New York on samurai business. We met up in Chinatown, where I found him lurking outside my hotel, tormenting passers-by with a toy sonic screwdriver. Both of us were fatter than in our salad days, but he was twice his previous weight, supposedly due to the medication he was on. He swayed as if already drunk (he wasn’t), and only seemed to listen to half the things I said. “It’s my happy pills!” he trilled. “So much better than when I haven’t got any!”
He was ebullient and oddly charming. A passer-by asked us for directions and he invited her to dine with us, kissing her hand as she scurried away… though I was sure he’d almost won her over. We sank a crate of Tsingtao Beer at the Grand Sichuan restaurant near Manhattan Bridge, and he told my wife that it was the first time he had left his apartment in months. He addressed the waiters in slurred and gabbled Japanese, seemingly unaware that this was sure to leave them unimpressed.
In the restaurant, he presented me with a signed Haruki Murakami book, which, he claimed, he had been saving for me for the last decade. I had, apparently, brought Murakami to his attention by enthusing about Hear the Wind Sing in 1992. I had no memory of this, nor much appreciation of the passion that would acquire it, stand in line to get it signed, and then sit on it for ten years pending a possible meeting with a chance acquaintance.
He found an outlet for his frustrations in the world of Doctor Who fandom. He loved the Doctor’s Edwardian eccentricity and off-world Britishness, but also saw in the Master, the Doctor’s dark half, some symbolic re-enactment of his own inner turmoil. He agonised for days over whether to leave his apartment to attend a New York fan gathering, worried that they would think him “weird”.
“Trust me,” I said. “It’s a Doctor Who event. There is no way you will be the weirdest person there.”
He subsequently made a complete arse of himself by hitting on Karen Gillan from the audience during a Q&A on 14th April 2010, although that was not how he remembered it. For weeks afterwards he would brag of how he had whipped up a round of applause by telling Matt Smith: “YOU ARE THE DOCTOR!”
“I had them eating from my hands,” he cackled, speculating for some time about the possibilities of a stand-up career. It was a typical Blumenfeld delusion. In the time I had known him he had aspired to be a novelist, a film director, a screenwriter, and any number of other occupations. He was genuinely, exuberantly pleased that I had made a career as an author, and would often dream of doing something similar. I told him what I tell everybody else – that starting a story, and then finishing it, was the first step to anything. He claimed to have started; I never saw anything complete. Mark could be a kind-hearted innocent or a spiteful sulk, but the wild swings in his moods played havoc with his creative ambitions.
He spoke to me of one story idea, in which the Moon became an allegory for Mark himself, a satellite calved from the hateful Earth, which comes to delight observers on the ground by its apparent changes in shape. In Mark’s story, the Moon comes to love its own inconstancy, and forgives those who caused it to be separate in the first place.
Doctor Who fandom forced him to confront the existence of people who would disagree with him. He would rant and rave about fellow fans, sorting them into categories based on whether they had noticed which episodes were the “best”, in a series of bipolar reversals. Russell T Davies was the greatest creator Doctor Who had ever seen. Russell T Davies was a hack. Steven Moffat was the saviour of Doctor Who. Steven Moffat was the despoiler of Doctor Who. After a while, I stopped discussing the series with him, seeing in our “discussions” a zero-sum game.
Mark snatched up a large collection of Big Finish audios, to which he would listen repeatedly – he once confessed that he had spent seven hours listening to Immortal Beloved on a loop. Oddly, the sole opinion of his that remained unwavering was that Mark Wright’s cameo performance in Sympathy for the Devil was the greatest in Christendom, an assessment that baffled even Wright himself. He also developed a taste for the works of Paul Magrs and would harangue me for not keeping up with them.
Mark died sometime in late May, in his sleep, from a massive coronary. I only know because his mother found the phone number of his Australian friend, Paul, on his computer. Paul posted the news sometime later, long after Mark’s New York funeral. Had Paul not begun recounting his own friendship with Mark, I might well have written off Mark’s death as another “regeneration”, sure that he would turn up in Facebook within a few weeks, dressed as Doctor Doom or a steampunk villain, and boasting of a new Japanese online pen-pal who was sure to be his “next embittered ex”. It is only as the silence persists, and other friends begin coming from the woodwork to mourn him, that I believe he has really gone.
If Mark were able to read this, his reaction would depend on where he was in his cycle of medication. There was a Mark Blumenfeld who would be mortified to see his life discussed in public, insulted beyond belief that I should have chronicled his existence without mentioning any one of a dozen more interesting facts to which I should have been privy. There was also a Mark Blumenfeld who would have been deeply touched to know that anyone, anyone at all was paying attention. And it’s for that Mark that I write this.
I recently purchased a Murakami book that had a handwritten note from a Mark Blumenfeld. It read, “So happy to meet you! Mark” and included his email and phone number. I sent him an email greeting in haiku form. So sad that he will not be responding.
But sweet that you find him here! =)