Monday, 27 February 2012

Novel: Disprin Moon

It was never really dark in my room at night. The curtains were off-white cotton and didn't meet in the middle, so there was always an orange glow from the streetlamps outside, and the occasional flash of headlamps would throw furniture-shaped shadows onto the walls, too brief for me to decide which bits of furniture they were shadows of, wardrobe, chair, dressing-table mirror. This only happened sporadically, as The Squirrels was down a sidestreet off the Shrovedean Road, but it was the unpredictability that made me lie in my vast bed, my head propped uncomfortably on one of the chilly, overstuffed pillows, for hours every night, waiting for it. A flash, a whoosh of engine, and then, I thought, I would be able to get to sleep before it happened again. But then I would find myself listening to the other sounds: the continuous commotion of traffic on the main road, the similar, though wetter, commotion of the sea in the other direction, the coming and going of footsteps and their attendant drunken talking, singing, shouting, scuffles. Most nights about 1.30 there was a roaring scrape just outside the window that sounded like someone sanding the inside of my skull with a Black and Decker, startling me into the awareness that I had been either asleep or something very close to it. By the time could prise myself out of the bedclothes and cross the freezing room in my pyjamas the noise had faded and there was nothing to be seen. After a couple of months of this, I took to putting on my dressing-gown over my dead uncle's sweater and sitting in wait at the window, drinking a mug of my DIY malted milk to make me feel less cold and foolish. It was not till the third night, as I was nursing the dark smear of undissolved malt extract at the bottom of the mug and thinking of going back to bed, that I finally saw her, a small, hunched female figure on a skateboard, dreadlocked hair streaming behind her as she rounded the corner of Shrovedean Road and screeched down the middle of the street towards the black blur of the sea. I saw her face quite clearly as she passed in front of the window: old, about thirty, with an aquiline nose and eyes screwed up in concentration. I suspected the dreadlocks were dyed, though it was impossible to be sure in the sodium light.
     Now I found that even the moon could keep me awake. I had never given much thought to it before, but after Christmas its presence became intrusive. When it was within a few days of the full the glow in my room changed from orange to silver, reflecting icily off the mirrors (dressing-table and wardrobe) and counterpane, so that my bed became a sort of life-raft in an Arctic Ocean. Again, I took to getting up and putting myself through all the palaver of dressing-gown, uncle and slippers to see what was causing all the disturbance. The moon was a few feet, so it seemed, above the rooftops on the far side of the street; it was disappointingly small and a bright chemical white going fuzzy round the edges. It reminded me of a Disprin, though it was more likely to cause a headache than cure one. I had the same feeling about it that I had about the starlings. It was somehow personal, a moon that had it in for me. I could see now why some there were always more suicides on nights of the full moon. Not that I was sure whether it was full or not. There was perhaps a sliver missing on the left hand side?
     Since Christmas everyone had been afraid.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Novel: The Mirror Stage

I was not well equipped to do a PhD, being incapable of reading a book from beginning to end. I had a pile of books on the dressing table in front of my huge mirror: The Worst Journey in the World, Farthest North, South, Home of the Blizzard, In the Land of the White Death. I hadn't read any of them, not even The Worst Journey, which was my reason for wanting to do a PhD in the first place. I had started them all, then found myself compelled to skip, first, a few pages, then a whole chapter, then several chapters, then, finally, to put the book down and pick up one of the others and do the same with that. I didn't think my head was big enough to contain a whole book. Even if I did succeed in finishing one, I knew it would start to evaporate from my brain the moment I put it down again - worse, the beginning would already have evaporated by the time I reached the end. The more I thought about reading the more convinced I became that it wasn't actually possible, or at least not for me. One of my reasons for signing up for the PhD was simply to force myself to confront this problem: I could no longer claim that I didn't read books all through because I didn't have the time now that reading was the only thing I was actually supposed to do. That and writing. There was a jumble of index cards on the desk beside the books, on which I had written extracts from them, each one marked with a page reference and an abbreviation indicating which of the books it came from:
For me it was a very bad night: a succession of shivering fits which I was quite unable to stop, and which took possession of my body for many minutes at a time until I thought my back would break, such was the strain placed upon it. They talk of chattering teeth: but when your body chatters you may call yourself cold. I can only compare the strain to that which I have been unfortunate enough to see in a case of lock-jaw. WJW, p. 237.
I was never sure which bits I ought to be copying, and what use I would be able to make of them afterwards. Perhaps I ought to copy the whole of each book, in index-card-sized chunks. And then what? Since they were index cards, I needed to apply some kind of index to help me find them when they were needed. I had written lockjaw and teeth, chattering at the top of this one. It was the only one of all my index cards that had either of those keywords, and indeed, sifting through the pile I could hardly find any keyword that was used more than once. Penguin, snow, and frostbite were the main exceptions. 'What do you want to say about Polar exploration?' Linda used to ask me. (She had been assigned as my supervisor, though I was beginning to suspect that she knew nothing about the subject.) I just muttered something about courage, endurance, testing yourself to the limit.
     'That's what those guys would have said, too,' Linda told me, 'Scott, Shackleton, Cherry-Garrard, all those guys. That's a phallogocentric, liberal humanist position. You need to be looking to beyond that, seeking to deconstruct them. The North Pole is a metaphor, Daniel, and your role is to discover what the signified is.'
     'The South Pole,' I told her pedantically, since it was The Worst Journey we were talking about that day.
     'The South Pole is a metaphor, too. In fact you should be trying to abolish the difference between them. The first task of the deconstructionist is to abolish the binary opposition between polarities. And if the North Pole and the South Pole aren't opposing polarities, then, then..' Her eyes went vague and she scratched her right breast.
     'Sorry,' I said, not sure if I was apologizing or trying to get her to finish the sentence.
     She shook her head and gave a little inward-looking smile as if at something she could see that I couldn't. '...then where are you, Daniel?'
     Linda's influence was responsible for the second pile of books on the dressing-table: Of Grammatology, A Theory of Literary Production, S/Z, Critical Practice, above all, a selection from Lacan's Écrits with a shiny silver cover so reflective I could hold it up in front of my mirror and produce a shimmery approximation of those reflections-of-reflections-of-reflections effects which had fascinated me since I was a child, the Hall of Mirrors, as I used to call it. The cover, of course, was a metaphor, too, and its signified was the Mirror Stage, which was the only bit of Lacan I sometimes thought I might possibly understand. Apparently the moment a child first recognized itself in the mirror was a crucial stage in the development of the sense of self. From now on he (it had to be a he, apparently, though I wasn't sure why), had entered into the Symbolic Order, or possibly the Imaginary Order. Having had this childhood fascination with mirrors, I thought I could relate to that. The child sees himself and understands that it is him there, and yet it isn't: it's a version that's whole, three-dimensional, can be seen from the outside, me and he at the same time. I wasn't sure I had ever got past the mirror stage, and it wasn't helping that I was doing all my reading in front of one.
     I put down my book, halfway through 'The Mirror Stage' for the third or fourth time. I was always halfway through 'The Mirror Stage'. There was my room on the other side of the silver barrier, perfectly simulated in every detail except that the writing on all the books was back to front and the me that was sitting there staring back, short, skinny, with dark hair and freckles that should never have existed in someone of that colouring, wearing a shapeless outsize polo-neck sweater inherited from a dead uncle, a me I couldn't see any other way. And those light-brown eyes, hypnotic, fascinating, malignant. I stared at them until I was no longer sure which of the two I was. Maybe I was going through the mirror stage backwards, becoming an infant again. I shook my head the way Linda did, and was momentarily surprised to see my reflection imitating me (not altogether convincingly, I thought). Those eyes - they were slightly sanpaku perhaps. But when I sat up a bit straighter so that my mirror self was exactly level, the little crescent of white under the pupil disappeared.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Novel: JFK's Eyes

There was something disorientating about that room. Partly it was the punctuated darkness. Every now and then someone would come in and switch on a light, and Imogen, without pausing in her conversation, would get up and switch it off again. No one ever objected to this, or even seemed to notice it. Imogen must have seen me looking at her quizzically over the macrobiotic book, though, because after the third or fourth time this had happened, she said, 'I hate artificial light.'
     The only permanent artificial light in the room came from the television, which was a very small black-and-white one, with a picture so fuzzy that when I turned round from the dining table to look at it, I couldn't tell what was on: people-shaped blurs roared across the screen from time-to-time, the noise of electrical fuzz almost completely drowning out whatever they had to say. There was a plain white candle guttering in a saucer on the table, and another one resting precariously on one of the convex arms of the sofa. And everyone in the room, apart from me, was smoking. Just as she did in the Shakespeare's Head, Imogen rolled cigarettes all the time, and handed them out without comment. She never offered me one, so I supposed she had noticed I didn't smoke.
     'It seems inconsistent,' I said.
     'What does?'
     'Smoking. When you go in for all this healthy eating.'
     'I don't go in for healthy eating. What an expression! I couldn't give a toss about healthy eating. Anyway, cigarettes are vegetarian. Read your book, Daniel.'
     It wasn't easy to make out the words in the variable light, grey from the television, yellow from the candles, reddish from the cigarettes. The author was an American journalist who suffered from agonies from piles until he discovered the macrobiotic diet, which involved eating nothing but unpolished grains. Even vegetables, it turned out, were a trap; when a hostess gave him some rice with a tomato and lemon sauce it caused days of bleeding. Finding the details a bit offputting (I was still trying to eat my bulgur wheat, which had gone cold by now), I turned a few pages, and started reading about President Kennedy's eyes.
     Imogen was reading over my shoulder. 'Did you know that about JFK's eyes? Look at that picture. It's a really clear case.'
     I looked at the suited figure, his short, parted hair, the classic symmetrical face gone slightly pudgy with middle age, and noticed, for the first time a crescent of white under each pupil. Now she drew my attention to it, I could see that it was quite unattractive, almost as if the eyes were upside-down. The book called it sanpaku.
     'See, Daniel, that's what you get from eating red meat and processed food. Or both at once in your case. Corned beef, whatever that is. It probably means they put some kind of processed wheat or maize flour in it. And sooner or later it will kill you, like it did with JFK.'
     I was half-way through my second glass of Piat d'Or by now, but felt drunk from all the shifting lights and people. 'Hang on, Imogen. He was shot, wasn't he?'
     'Well, of course he was shot, Daniel. But would he have been, if his diet had been better? That's what we have to ask. Turn round, let me look at your eyes. I think you're a bit sanpaku yourself. Have you looked at your eyes lately?'
     'I see my eyes a lot,' I said. 'My room is almost all mirror. I've never noticed anything much wrong with my eyes.' As soon as she said it, I had a feeling there was something wrong with my eyes after all. The fact was that I found my dressing-table mirror disconcerting and avoided looking in it as much as possible. 'But I still don't get it about JFK. How did having the wrong kind of eyes lead to him getting shot?'
     'It's all in the book, Daniel. Read the book.' But seeing I had put it down when she started staring into my eyes, she carried on, 'I don't know, I can't remember the details. But it was the sixties, in America, and he was probably eating all sorts of hamburgers and hot dogs and T-bone steaks like they did then, and his whole metabolism was fouled up with them. It's pretty certain he would have died of cancer anyway if he hadn't been shot. And then when he was shot there was, what was it? Eight seconds or something between the first bullet and the second. If his system hadn't been so sluggish with the cancer and the hamburgers, he would have reacted in time and got out of the way.'
     'I think it's the angle of the photograph,' I said. 'Probably everyone has sanpaku eyes if you look at them from a certain angle. I mean, you're smaller than me, so you look up to me.'
     'I don't,' she said quickly, and we both laughed. I would definitely look at my eyes in the dressing-table mirror when I got back to the Squirrels.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Novel: Bulgur Wheat

Imogen lived the way students were supposed to live, in a big Victorian house on the edge of Halifax Park, with three housemates and a constantly changing cast of temporary residents - friends, boyfriends, people crashing on the sofa or the carpets. It smelt the way student houses were supposed to, of Golden Virginia, sandalwood joss-sticks, damp, garlic and spilled soy sauce. There was a sort of communal room with a television in one corner and a long refectory table along one wall, so that you could only sit one side of it, with your back to the television, which was always on, though usually with the sound turned down. There was at least one person eating there at any time of the day or night, which made the atmosphere in the room like an endlessly extended dinner party. Most of the rest of the room was taken up with a sofa covered in what looked like navy-blue corduroy; the cover was fastened with the longest zip I had ever seen, the kind Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have designed if he'd gone in for zips. It ran the length of the sofa at the point where the seat and the back met, then along and round both arms, and got lost somewhere behind. It was a two-way zip, the two metal tags meeting in the middle, and no one could sit in that area without feeling the urge to play with them. It was not really a temptation, Imogen said, more a responsibility, because the sofa needed to eat like anyone else. What this meant was that it absorbed cushions. It was certainly the most uncomfortable piece of furniture I had ever sat on, even lower than the chairs in the English Department Common Room, and getting lower and more emaciated all the time. When it got too much to bear, someone would throw a cushion from the floor to whoever was sitting in the middle of the sofa, and that person would open the zip and stuff a cushion inside. The sofa never looked any plumper for this feeding, or the floor any barer of cushions, though it was possible, of course, that Imogen or one of the other housemates took all the cushions out of its interior occasionally, and put them back on the floor. Under its scattering of cushions, the lounge floor was polished boards with three oriental rugs, very faded and worn so thin that mats seemed a more appropriate word. It was dangerous to step on them, especially if you were carrying a mug of coffee or a bowl of rice. There was a bead curtain rather than a door between this room and the kitchen; Imogen came through it with a bowl in each hand.
     'This is great,' I said, trying to put warmth into my voice. I wasn't sure what to make of Imogen's invitation. She had told me she had a boyfriend, and besides it had never occurred to me to fancy her. She was small and slim with short boyish-looking hair and pale blue far-apart eyes. The wide mouth was her most interesting feature - it always gave her a sardonic look. I found myself looking at her now and readjusting my mind to see if it might have room for at least a few fantasies.
     'It's bulgur wheat,' Imogen said. 'I thought you needed something sustaining.' Seeing me looking suspiciously at the rubble in the bowl, she laughed. 'It's not that bad, Daniel. What sort of stuff do you eat normally? Apart from hot dogs?'
     'Corned beef hash.'
     'I don't know what that is. What is that? It involves meat, obviously.'
     'It's corned beef, and onions, and potatoes, fried. and a panful of it lasts me two days. Hot with brown sauce, cold with coleslaw.'
     'I remember brown sauce,' someone called up from the sofa. 'You mean HP sauce, or Daddy's? That brings back so many happy memories.' He was a boyfriend of one of the housemates, I thought. I had a vague impression of a thin young man with frizzy hair and glasses somewhere behind me.
     'It's not the HP sauce that's your main problem,' Imogen said. 'That's not going to make you so much worse than you are already. It would be bad for me, but as far as you're concerned we have to make allowances. I don't like the fried aspect.'
     'That's the recipe. It has to be fried.'
     'Throw away your frying pan, Daniel. A frying pan is bad news from the spiritual point of view. There's nothing you can fry that wouldn't be better boiled, or better still steamed.'
     'I don't think you can steam corned beef hash.'
     'Too right you can't steam it,' the boyfriend said from the sofa,
     'But it's the corned beef that's the real killer,' Imogen continued. 'I mean, it's not just beef, is it? Beef would be bad enough. Oh no, Daniel, it has to be corned.'
     It sounds as though Imogen was lecturing me, but she really wasn't. She spoke in a bantering way, always with a smile, which made me feel that she actually liked me for my reprehensible diet. When she noticed the trouble I was having making my way through the bulgur wheat (which was just that, a bowl of hot, slightly soiled-looking grains, without even salt on them) she started plying me with extras - soy sauce, a glass of the wine I'd brought, a slice of bread cut from a bricklike loaf she'd baked, and described approvingly as 'really cakey', even some butter. She didn't have any of these things herself. 'I'm having a macrobiotic week,' she said.
     When I asked her to explain, she got up from the table and went over to the far wall where there was an improvised bookshelf against the skirting board made of bricks and planks. 'Here,' she said, read this.'
     I read while she came and went, explaining bits from time to time between several conversations she was having with other people. More people came in and sat at the table to eat. There was a housemate called Monica with rich dark hair and brown eyes behind brown-rimmed glasses, who spoke very fast in a squeaky voice that gave me a strange feeling inside. My mind started readjusting again. 'What the party needs,' the boyfriend was saying from the sofa (Monica's boyfriend? Imogen's?) 'is more intellectuals.'
     'Oh we don't!' Monica said. 'We've got far too many intellectuals already. We've got a million intellectuals, and only one worker.'