All entries for September 2008

September 19, 2008

Fio

“Static,” F says, flinching her hand up away from the rail.

I tell her it’s probably because she’s so attractive. She chuckles at me, rather than with me, for a few seconds, her laughter condensing in the night air, and the queue moves forward.

          She gives her best smile to the bouncer, full of flirtation, and he moves his brick-like arm aside.

          We step into a pounding beat.

          “Static again,” says F, twitching as we climb the stairs. “You’d think it was all across the city.”

          “Probably just you, isn’t it?” I reply, gazing over the crowds of bouncing arms. A muscular young man is dragged forcibly past us and away out of sight.

          “Do you mind if I head for the cloakrooms?” she asks my ear.

          For a moment I can watch her leaving. Then, because in a club you always have to find something to do, I lean on the rail and watch the dancefloor. I rarely feel so alone as in places like this; a multitude of hands, dehumanised, moving to a rhythm I can barely hear.

          My naked arm crackles. Static, I think, brushing pointlessly at it.

          A beautiful woman falls through the crowd, still vomiting, and disappears.

          Strange, I think, and watch.

          People are beginning to fall out of rhythm; their moves falter, some begin to shout out of time. A black hole of dancefloor begins to open up. A gaggle of overweight, chanting men attempt to detach themselves from each other, but, like mountaineers, find themselves dragged further and further down. A crush of heads makes for the stairs; the entire floor tips, and the furthest back begin to slide comically into the morass.

          The curious thing, I think, as F grabs me by the hand and drags me back down the stairs and towards the doors, is how the music never stops.

          We burst out into the Marylbone night. F, gasping, asks,

          “What was that? An earthquake?”

          Her voice is still tinny; the choking music has numbed my hearing. Loud yells of pain and terror begin to sour the littered sky. And something else; a peculiar humming, unless it’s just my eardrums, is searching through the air, like an old train’s movement. Something like,

fio, fio, fio, fio, fio-

          I turn to F, all pretty and dishevelled without her coat, and open my mouth. She’s staring right past me, and I look back. A group of men are running hard towards us up from Baker Street.

          “Shit,” F says, and turns to run.

          From above, the BT tower swings its precipice around like a baton and crushes them.

          “Uh...” I reply. F is already dragging on my arm, and so I turn and run with her down the High Street. A lamp-post sways violently towards me but cracks itself on a nearby Transit van.

          “Over here!”

          We turn, as one, to the cry. A hand is waving frantically, as if in tune to the flailing skyscraper, from behind iron railings. F scrambles up. Somehow, I follow, and fall into the silence of the park.

          The noise is quieter here, though still audible;

          fio, fio, fio-

         

          The buildings rear angrily at our presence, but do not pass beyond the iron railings and rows of elms. F takes my hand; we move, quietly, through the crowds gathered across the lawns.

          “What’s going on?” someone shouts. A young couple are weeping, by the summerhouse.

          “Terrorists,” says somebody else. A young man yells,

          “It’s the government!”

          A rather younger one replies,

          “No, idiot...the machines are taking over!”

          Someone is laughing.

          An old man is slouching across one of the benches. A stack of Big Issues sits to one side of him; a stolen supermarket trolley full of liquor bottles has been parked in front of him. He continues to laugh, toothlessly.

          “Should’ve asked me,” he says. “None of you heard him, did you? All of you, sleepin’ safe at night...none of you heard London whisperin’.”

          He stuffs one of the magazines into one of the whisky bottles. Liquor splurges.

          “Sleeping on the subway...on the streets...oh, Jamie heard him all right. Whisperin’ away to himself, watchin’ you- he was glad how the governmen’ gave him all those cameras, all those bugs, because it helped him watch. A dark thing, London, lying beneath his own skin, waitin’.”

          “Are you seriously suggesting-” someone begins. A helicopter flutters overhead. The BT tower launches itself up, foundations straining, and snatches it out of the air. The sentence remains unfinished.

          Jamie coughs out his mirth. The younger man asks,

          “What’re we gonna do?”

          I add,

          “And what’s that noise?”

          Jamie glances around the group for a moment, and then takes up another bottle and proceeds to stuff it.

          “Look,” the younger man says, when nobody else has replied. “We have to get out of here. If we can just make it out-”

          “How far,” Jamie says, loudly, “do you think London stretches, these days? To Finchley? To the Green Belt? To the whole country?”

          “All right,” says a portly businessman. “Listen to this-”

          He holds his mobile phone aloft.

          -the situation is under control. Make your way out into the streets: move slowly and the attackers will be sure to leave you alone. We repeat-        

         

          “No, no, no!” says Jamie. “First thing you always do in war? Take over the enemy’s communications! That’s London talking, tricking us- your damned phone may be global, but the radio masts are in London, aren’t they?”

          The businessman blushes.

          “You seem to know an awful lot about this,” he says. “It seems to me, sir, that you owe a lot to this city- it provides you with shelter, sustenance, all the things that human people wouldn’t...perhaps it’s recruited you to its side, eh?”

         

          F prevents a fight from breaking out by saying loudly,

          “I have another idea. This thing, this London...we can beat it.”

          The fat businessman goes quiet. Even Jamie stops manufacturing his Molotov cocktails for a moment.

          “What if,” she says, her beautiful face glowing with pride, “we found the old London? Surely that could beat this...this new London, this thing? Bring back the ancient city to fight the new one?”

          “The old London died at the hands of the new one long ago,” someone says mournfully. “Butchered by tour buses and department stores...”

          “How would we go about it, anyway?” someone else asks. “If we went to St Paul’s and asked God to return...”

          “Nah,” a young woman says despondently. “St Paul’s was rebuilt, remember?”

          “Tower of London,” F says. “Constantly rebuilt, never changing. If we could...summon the old city-”

          Jamie stands. He’s filled three rucksacks with his homemade explosives.

          “That’s all very well,” he says, “and if it works it’ll be fine. But I’m headed for the heart of this thing. If I can do it enough damage...”

          “Heart?” the businessman asks, perplexed. “Where’s the heart?”

          A murmur rises through the crowd.

          Oxford Street.

          “So we’ve got three choices,” says Jamie, “so pick your group, the lot of you. If you get into trouble, make for a park; you’ll be safe there.”

          There is a moment of silence. And then someone says, as if working out a thought for the first time,

          “But the city goes under the parks...”

          The grass shakes for a moment and pipes and cables, frothing water and electricity, erupt all around. The portly businessman, seized, is dragged away and down. A tide of hands catches me.

          For a moment I see F, standing on the other side of the chasm, waving at me.

          And then I’m standing with Jamie on the other side of the park.

          “Come on,” he says, and hands me one of the rucksacks.

          We trudge for hours through empty streets. The skyscrapers billow above us like tentacles, apparently appeased. A sticky sort of heat builds; sweat begins to form and reform on my neck.

          “Different sort of heat,” Jamie says quietly. “Heat builds in a funny way in cities. Watch out for the wind too- it can funnel it down the streets.”

          “Do you think this is happening anywhere else?” I ask him. “I mean, what if London can communicate-”

          “I don’t want to think about it,” he mumbles.

          After a few moments, he says,

          “I mean, if London can do this...then what about the smaller places? The towns, the villages? They’d be less powerful, sure, but there’d be less people to kill. I mean, have you noticed how the size of the settlement is in direct proportion to the number of people living there?”

          I reply that I have.

          “We should be at Oxford Circus by now,” he murmurs, scanning the road. “And yet this is only Bond Street. Wait here.”

          He steps forward; sniffs the air.

          The 11.45 Tube train rears up from Bond Street Station and swallows him whole.

          I run, pounding like some strange primal rhythm, down the curving alleys, thinking of F, hoping that she’s somehow found the old London, lured it out to fight.

          -fio, fio, fio, fio-         

          And then I emerge onto a wide, winding street, filled with department stores, and I know I’ve made it. A Lexus burns on the corner.

          The sign reads,

          King’s Road

          I realise then that the city has got the better of us. We’ve never even been close to the centre. It’s lured me here, to the outskirts, far from the heart.

          A futile, hopeless rage takes me. I unzip the rucksack and light the first Molotov from the flames of the Lexus. I hurl the bottle in through the windows of one department store, and then another into a bistro. Several bounce harmlessly off brick walls which were never there before. My last lands in the street, into a fire which was already there. And suddenly the rucksack is empty.

          Cables burst from the sewer and buildings all around, veiling the sky.

          Fields, I imagine desperately. Fields and trees and rolling hills.

But it’s false, and I know it, and the last thing I remember is cables.


September 18, 2008

Old Nick

He waits below the treeline for her ghost. Dawn is breaking over the speechless landscape. He shuffles his feet closer together.

She will come, he thinks. She knows the time.

The garish-blonde-dyed girl kisses him on the lips and asks,

-What was the worst part of it?

     Her nimble fingers wander over his slender, unhealed back, arched like a ferret’s. You’ve become too used to tensing, she said when he first revealed his nudity to her. You’ll never relax again.

     -There was a machine...he says, and stops. His arms, he remembers, which now seem so free, so thoughtless, were pinioned together behind his back.

     He blushes, and explains it to her. He runs his hand up her thigh, just to prove to himself that he still can.

     -Some men appreciate powerlessness, she says.

     That’s a vice reserved for men with power, he replies, and some women who don’t know what’s good for them.

     She brushes his hand away, stands, and shakes her hair. His frustration, he realises, has been made too clear: she’ll never allow him that same authority over her again. She crosses to the window, gazes over the muddy dawn, and says,

     -Shouldn’t you be getting back to your wife?

     The burly friar, he thinks, who knocked at the door and told him,

     -Nicholas...the farmer’s daughter...Adele...

     They found her in the winter sludge at the northern roadside. Her yellow locks, the friar said, had melted into goldish mud, and the body had been roughly handled. Somebody had violated her- and the tough old man was trembling as he made a rapid sign of the cross- hours after her neck had been broken.

     He sat on the bed till nightfall. Marietta, sensibly, busied herself elsewhere in the house, only entering later on to ask, would he be attending the funeral?

     Dear Marietta, he thinks, indomitable in all things but so pliant, as if she’d decided at some point that he wanted nothing more from her but agreement.

     No, he told her, he wouldn’t be going, and kissed her as if that was a statement of his love for her, and a lack of concern for Adele. He was frightened of what he might do the body, supine and helpless.

     Church-bell tolls spin through the sky to his hidden perch. He rises, and walks down the scree-filled track to the village.

     -And what does our writer think about this dark age? asks the abbot of Saint Bartholomew, wrenching him from dreams of Adele in a hostel doorframe. Marietta carves the pork in silence.

     -Young men run amok, the landowner Balducci says, swigging from his cup, the politicians lie and cheat for the good of their reputation, the infidels seek to bring our good civilisation down from all sides- surely this will be the end of the world, Nicholas? His wide, rugged face grins from the far end of the table.

     He picks at his food, without replying. The abbot and Balducci move on to the farmer’s daughter- the young slut!- and her shameless glances. Balducci approves; the abbot argues that such provocativeness is unseemly in a young woman.

     Balducci, with the magnanimity of an honest man, claims an equality of the sexes: the abbot, rubbing his thin beard, replies,

     -And when a woman rises too high, as in the Borgia...

     -Then she will use her power over men. And why not? It’s only natural, isn’t it, that both sexes should press their advantages?

     -Nature, the abbot says primly, has nothing to do with it.

     Balducci asks Marietta for support. With a compliance that stirs his hatred, she agrees with the landowner, and begins to tidy away the platters.

     -What is natural? he asks, aloud. I’m not certain- at least, not for man. The hyena of the Dark Continent lives in a society where the female rules over the male. Their genitals, I have read, protrude in a masculine manner, and are positioned in such a way that they have utter control over which males mate with them and which do not.

     -A Satanic creature indeed, the abbot says, laughing. The example you have chosen proves beyond a doubt whose side you are on.

     Balducci is watching him. The meal seems to last forever, the conversation trickling into nothingness.

He finds his old letters beneath her mattress. It seems almost theatrically clear that she did not treasure them. The corners of the oldest have become ragged and moth-gnawed: a single piece of string binds them together.

From behind the door, someone coughs; her father, still grieving, is loitering in case he tries to steal anything.

     He reads through them backwards, beginning with the last.

     I will meet you at the treeline at dawn. Don’t be late

     We shall meet, out of sight, in the

     I love you. It’s only now I realise

     I must have you

    

     He stops.

     One letter, in a very different hand, has been jammed into the middle of the pages. The same sentiments, he thinks, skimming over it, as mine, the same gilded phrasings. No wonder she felt it deserved a similar burial.

     -I could not have beaten you, he says aloud, at the down-and-dirty games of love. It took the parlour-tricks and wordplay of the city to do that. You were clever, but not in a way I could have appreciated.

The rogue letter is signed,

    

     BB

2

     He tears the door open and Adele’s father almost tumbles through it, flailing. He grabs at the farmer’s collar and snaps with inappropriate violence,

     -I know there were other men. Who were the other men? When did they come and see her?

     The old man rubs one rheumy eye.

     -There were other men, he says at last. But only after you. It was for you she made herself a slut- my little girl never played with the boys, never shamed her family, not before you came and ruined her.

- She told me what you told her- how they racked you, and you squealed and begged for them to let you stay in the city. They had sense, wanting you out. You’re a damned snake, and you put a spell on her- that's the truth of it.

He asks, blushing bloodily, straining to hide his anger,

-And the money I paid you so that I could visit her every night? Do I get that back?

The old man holds his gaze, refusing to budge; his lips set in righteousness.

I’m powerless, he thinks, trudging through the village square, against someone like that. Brawn and might. Even when his dishonesty is unmasked his conscience goes untainted.

He sleeps at the hostel that night with a young peasant girl called Irena who can’t keep her mouth shut. Clenched above her, he whispers,

-Here I come, Adele.

(Lying on her bed together, still in a kind of harmony, their two imperfect bodies cupped and fitting perfectly, he says,

-Adele. Adele.

She is awake, but stays quiet, to keep him unsatisfied.)

Irena, curled beneath the sheets like a resting doe, says without hesitation,

-Oh, yes, there was another man, and I know because she boasted about him to most of the pub one night. I’m sorry; I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but if you want to know what she said...

-Fine, he replies, staring at the anonymous ceiling. He has spent wordless nights here with Adele so many times.

-Well, my father didn’t bring me up that way, but she told us how she was cuckolding a married man for a landowner-

-Balducci, he says. His name is Balducci.

(-Consider, he says, running his hand across her neck, trembling, how man always hopes to change- himself, or society- and is never able to defeat the status quo. A man who is always reinventing himself, but unable to escape from the core of himself. To be forever in hope of escaping yet always unable to do so...that is how I imagine hell.)

Irena takes a gulp of the cheap mulled wine he’s bought for her and adds,

-There was one thing I heard from her, but I don’t think I can tell you.

He waits, in silence. She blurts,

-She was waiting to tell you...about him, about the landowner. She said she wanted to see the look on your face. She said it’d make her laugh, to see you all outraged and hurt.

(Adele shakes her blonde hair away from him and says,with a glance of scorn,

-You do like to play the ‘irredeemable martyr’, don’t you?)

-It was her final move, he says aloud. She was going to checkmate me.

Dawn is swelling into morning by the time he reaches the field on the southern edge of town. Balducci crouches, two of the peasants at his side, examining the soil. Crows scatter as he stands.

-Balance, he explains, extending his hand to shake. A little lime on the earth helps make it more fertile. But then, I don’t think you’ve ever really understood balance, have you, Nicholas?

-There’s no such thing, he says, his temper rising. He raises his finger; lethal, accusatory.

-Before you ask, Balducci says calmly, and try and, you know, make a tragedy out of this whole thing; yes, I murdered her.

Balducci hands his hat to one of the peasants.

-I slept with her, he says, and I strangled her. The latter...became a sort of natural climax to the former. Her father knows; I’ve paid him well for it, and apologised. I mean, what’s he going to do about it? Honestly?

Balducci gazes at him, folding his honest forearms across his chest. The peasants stand, with animal patience, on either side of him.

-What were you hoping for, Nicholas? he asks. That you’d denounce me, have me arrested? I own these hills, and these fields, and these people. I cannot be touched, least of all by the likes of you.

He leans close.

-What power do you think you have, Machiavelli?

Balducci spits. His hand crumples into a fist, by his side. He brings it up, as if threatening to strike, and then thinks better of it and lets his arm dropped.

Balducci laughs, uproariously; the peasants smile.

-You’re going to fight me? he asks. And what will that solve, when I’ve broken your feeble arm, and maybe that little rat-like head of yours as well? Do you really think your life matters any more than hers did?

The truth begins to drain his rage from the pit of his belly. Turning, he trudges away through the field, stepping onto the muddy edge so as not to disturb the half-dead crops. Balducci shouts something after him, but it’s lost.

Lying awake, separate from his wife’s outstretching arms, he asks the question,

-What is more pathetic than a man who must control the world?

Adele, he knows, will not respond.


September 17, 2008

Another poem using random integer generator

3

Unease

seems to be the function of the crowded man

with a blanket covering his legs -which aren’t

there- and that warning (Vaults Below), crying

aloud, like the expression

of the Ghanaian woman

at Oxford Circus, her Bible held

just past her megaphone’s length,

stuttering, repeating herself,

agreeing, “yes; the odds are against you. Tonight

this maze will catch you, and you will not know

how to run.

         


Opening of a weird attempt at children's fiction

           It’s the same day that things stop happening that an old woman, arms braceleted with the handles of over-stuffed carrier bags, kicks me in the shins.

           It’s not a hard blow, but enough to make my twelve-year-old eyes dazzle with tears. She smiles with satisfaction and limps off through the mall. One or two of the nearby mothers applaud. I rub my shins and cry for a bit. When nobody comes, I pull myself together and wander back through the suburbs. In the hope that God’s watching all of this and taking notes, I limp all the way through the torrential rain.

           “Dad,” I say when I get home. “Dad. Dad.”

My father glances down from the Times and replies,

           “The same news for eight days now. Things have stopped happening, James. I told you, didn’t I? Things have got so bad that they can’t even report them anymore.”

           And he tears off the front page of the newspaper and sticks it up next to the seven identical front pages across the kitchen wall. This begins to annoy me. I’ve been injured, I want to tell him, viciously injured. How can typhoons in America and bombings in Afghanistan compare?

           I settle for,

           “Dad. Dad, an old lady kicked me in the shins today.”

           My father says, vaguely, gazing over his collection of repeated news stories.

           “Well, I imagine she thought you were going to steal her purse or stab her to death or something, didn’t she?”

           “I only said she’d dropped her avocadoes.”

           My father reads aloud,

           INVESTMENT BANKS FALL INTO BANKRUPTCY

           He steps to his left and reads from the adjacent front page,

           INVESTMENT BANKS FALL INTO BANKRUPTCY

           I give up on him as a lost cause and wander into the living room.

           “Mum,” I say. “Mum. Mum.”

           My mother continues to read from the armchair in silence.

           “Mum, Dad says the world’s coming to an end because there’s no news any more and an old lady kicked me in the shins because I said she dropped her avocadoes and people clapped.”

           “Philip,” she calls, “are you frightening Jamie?”

           My father replies through the partition,

           INVESTMENT BANKS FALL INTO BANKRUPTCY

           “If you miss the news so much, Jamie,” she says, yawning, “then just read a book or put on one of your DVDs, and then pretend it’s the news.”

           I put on Jurassic Park.

          

2

The next day, I wake up late; my morning routine of piddle and poo follows, and I wander downstairs in my pyjamas and into the kitchen.

I notice straight away that something's wrong. Dad’s newspaper articles hang to one side; the table has been upended and the fridge door hangs ajar. A couple of strange older kids are standing all around me. I’ve seen them hanging around at the mall.

           “Did an old lady kick you too?” I ask.

           “Shurrthellup,” one of them says, and takes a swig of one of my father’s beers.

           “Oi, oi,” one of the others replies, elbowing him in the ribs. “Gimme a hit of that, yeah?”

           They pass the beer around. The oldest kid, who stands a foot taller than all the rest, finishes it off and throws it through the open window.  It shatters on the grass.

           “Dad,” I call. “Dad.”

           “Your old man can’t hear you now,” the oldest kid says, and chuckles. He glares at the others until they laugh as well.

           “Where is he?” I ask.

           “Norwich,” the kid says. “All the adults have gone to Norwich. ‘Cause the world’s ended.”

           I shuffle through them to the breadbin and make myself a peanut butter sandwich.

           “We should kill ‘im,” one of the kids says. “And take ‘is sandwich.”

           I chew on the sandwich.

           The oldest kid punches him in the stomach.

           “Let him go,” he says, and then, with a flourish, “He can tell the others. We rule this town now.”

           He leans down to me. I stop chewing.

           “This is our house now,” he says. “How’s that make you feel?”

           “Thug rule,” one of the others adds, vaguely.

           They wave their dented kitchen knives in the air.

           I walk out through the empty suburbs to Billy’s house. This place has already been looted. Someone’s sprayed graffiti around all of the walls.

           I wander in and up the stairs to Billy’s room. He’s sitting at the Playstation, playing Deathmonger. The game lights shine off his huge round glasses.

           “What’re you doing?” I ask him. He’s too busy to reply, so I sit on the bed beside him and watch Deathmonger for a bit.

           “I think society’s broken down,” I tell him. It was one of my dad’s favourite phrases. “The...economic, social, cultural, environmental...things...have all exploded.”

           “Oh,” Billy says. The message doesn’t seem to have got across. I scramble across the floor and unplug the Playstation.

           “Oh,” Billy says.

           I turn on the news instead.

           The news desk is empty. Every so often, lines of writing cross up the screen, like in Star Wars.

          

           -FINAL EVACUATION HAS BEEN TAKEN AS A RESULT OF THE VARIOUS CATASTROPHES AS LISTED IN OUR PAGES AND NEWSROOMS OVER THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS- NAMELY CLIMATE CHANGE FREQUENT TERRORISM CULTURAL UPHEAVAL VIOLENCE ON OUR STREETS ECONOMIC COLLAPSE SOCIAL CHAOS THE WIDENING BARRIER BETWEEN OLD AND YOUNG- THAT PROVISION SHOULD BE MADE FOR THE DECENT HONEST PEOPLE OF THE WORLD TO BE EVACUATED TO FORTIFIED LOCATIONS AGAINST THE THREATS OF THE BESTIAL AND MONSTROUS: THERE THEY SHALL BUILD VARIOUS SHUTTLE DEVICES POSSIBLY FOR THE INHABITATION OF OTHER WORLDS, IN THE SPIRIT OF A DISASTROUS PROJECT SPEEDILY ABANDONED THIS OPERATION SHALL BE KNOWN AS ‘DUNKIRK’-

           Billy sneaks a hand under his bed and retrieves a chocolate bar. He unwraps it, slowly, and begins to chomp.

           “So all the adults are gone?” he asks.

           “Yeah.”

           “So we can do whatever we want? Anything we want to do, we can do?”

           “Yeah.”

           He keeps his eyes on the screen.

           “I think I’ll lie in,” he says. “I think I’ll just play Deathmonger.

           “You can’t just play Deathmonger. The world is ours.”

           He finishes the chocolate bar and throws away the wrapper.

           “Nobody else is doing anything,” he says sulkily. I look out of the window. Nothing, it’s true, is moving. The streets are empty.

           “No,” I said, “some people are looting. Your house got looted.”

           It takes a moment for this to sink in.

           “What did they take?” he asks. I shrug.

           “Your food, your TV, everything that’s not in here.” He considers this for a second. His face goes an odd kind of purple and his eyes turn in on themselves. Billy does this quite a lot; once, when we were playing on his video console, the screen froze and he froze as well. It wasn’t until I’d unplugged it and plugged it in again that he started moving.

           “I’ll loot a new house,” he says suddenly, brightening. “One for me.” He hesitates for a second before adding, “You can come too. Sometimes.”

           “Come on,” I tell him. “I’m hungry.”

3

           McDonalds is empty. Stray paper wrappings flit over the floor; someone’s already got in and eaten all of the prepared burgers.

           “Where are the people?” Billy asks, his eyes wide. He’s always been in awe of the people at McDonalds since he first figured out that you could get a toy and food at the same time.

           “Gone to Norwich,” I reply. For some reason I hadn’t thought that DECENT HONEST PEOPLE OF THE WORLD would include them.

           “Come on,” I tell Billy. “We can make our own meals. I’ve seen them do it.” Billy stares at me. Outside, four older kids chase a younger kid, screaming, across the roundabout.

           “My mum makes chips,” Billy says.

           “Come on. We can make chips.”

           “I want my mum,” Billy says.

           I walk around the other side of the till. A basketful of unfried chips sit on the side. I try one of them. It tastes of old newspaper. I begin to choke it down, then remember myself and spit it out onto the tiled floor.

           Billy hovers, anxiously, as if he’s queueing for a meal.

           The burger meat is uncooked; the prospect of eating the salad by itself doesn’t appeal. Mostly to make the point, I pour myself an Extra Large bucket of Coke and drink it down.

           “Shall we go into town?” I ask Billy. I feel a bit giggly.

           “No,” he says. “Not town.” His big round eyes look tearful. He shuffles his trainers. One of the red lights on the back has broken.

           “Fine,” I snap. “Where do you want to go?”

           Halfway up the country road, I start to get annoyed. And, I realised, I need the toilet.

           “I need to pee,” I shout to Billy. He keeps walking, his gaze set on the ground.

           “I need to pee. Wait for me, yeah?” He keeps walking.

           I do the business across the hedge, staining myself in my hurry, and run after him.

           “Where are you going?” I ask him.

           “Mum and Dad said they were going to the camping store today,” he says. “So that’s where they’ll be.”

           “How do you know this is the way to the camping store?”

           He keeps walking.


September 16, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence

           It seems a shame that The Enchantress of Florence, which I’ve finally got around to reading, will be remembered mostly for the critic John Sutherland claiming that he’d curry his proof-copy and eat it if it didn’t win this year’s Booker prize, and then refusing to do so when it failed to make the shortlist. It also turns out to have been a silly move on Sutherland’s part, because The Enchantress of Florence is such a bizarre, playful novel, and, moreover, one eschewing all of the standard, ‘worthy’ themes appearing on the shortlist (growing up within dysfunctional families, finding one’s cultural identity, and so on...) that it should have been obvious that it would never win the Booker any more than a Terry Pratchett novel. It’s also admirably far from the public image that has formed around Salman Rushdie over the years of a generic, trendy literary superstar, (the sort of man who cameos, gurning, in Bridget Jones’ Diary for no apparent reason other than to be applauded?). I found myself surprised by just how offbeat and enjoyable this latest effort is.

           The novel features a curious disclaimer: “A few liberties have been taken with the historical record in the interests of the truth.” To anyone opening the book, it seems like an insufferable sentiment; to anyone who’s finished it, it’s actually a very funny (albeit slightly insufferable) shrug on the part of the storyteller and the importance of fabrication. The plot follows on from here; a European trickster, Niccolo Antonio Vespucci, charms his way into a Moghul court and tells the emperor there a long tale, which may or may not be false, in the manner of Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights.  Upon the bizarre claim that he has made- that he is actually the emperor’s uncle- rests his fortune and, perhaps, his life. If Rushdie runs dangerously close to a tiresome conceit concerning the nature of fiction (Ian McEwan’s Atonement, say), then he turns it to his advantage by investing so wholeheartedly in his narrative and characters that some of the novel’s more surreal turns - characters vanishing into books and paintings, a mysterious slave who tells her ‘story’ and then commits suicide once her purpose is served- come across as elegant rather than irritating.

           The plot, however, is merely the base for a fascinating network of ideas and philosophies, not least of which is murmured, early on, by the trickster;

           “This may be the curse of the human race...not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.”

           Rushdie continually presents individuals as perceived ideals and echoes, partly, perhaps, in the understanding that storytelling, particularly in the adventure and romance genres, must always rely to some extent on archetypal figures and situations, but also in a bold move towards a kind of underhand feminist perspective. The enchantress of the title, whose names alter with a beautiful fluidity, bears a startling similarity to an imaginary queen created by the Moghul emperor- a strong woman he creates in preference to the humble concubines and princesses all about him, who loses her power over him when he falls in love with the ‘enchantress’- who he only hears about as a character in the trickster’s tale. The story itself encompasses the Ottoman Empire and Florence, both of which begin to echo the Moghul dictatorship, and three Florentine friends, Niccolo Machiavelli, the explorer Vespucci, and Antonio Argalia, a warrior trained in the Ottoman army, all of whom come to resemble their namesake, the storyteller, not so much as ancestors but as composites contained within him. Even the enchantress herself is followed everywhere by a ‘Mirror’, an identical woman, who echoes every word of hers. Rushdie mocks this de-individualising tendency best (with a jab at Dumas’ hazy characterisations) by naming four identical Swiss giants Otho, Botho, Clotho, and D’Artagnan.

           The enchantress, however, is something else; she draws on Circe, Lucrezia Borgia, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and (I’m sure) more, without losing step. The fluidity of her sexual and cultural identity (she has at least five names as the story proceeds, and she never belongs to Florence exactly) goes against many of the values held within the novels which did make it onto the Booker shortlist, most obviously the innate differences between both genders as presented here. And the exact nature of her magical powers is lightly held; somewhere between the charms of an intelligent woman and the charm of a storyteller- once, at a battle between Safayids and Ottomans, her “enchantments” are specifically described as common-sense against dumb masculine heroics, such as, “Don’t you have any guns? You know about guns. For pity’s sake, why didn’t you bring any guns?”

The enchantress, ultimately, reveals an inescapable transience to her nature, but it seems Rushdie is celebrating that ‘feminine’ aspect of nature rather than bemoaning it- his old friend Angela Carter would certainly have found plenty to enjoy in her and the gender politics surrounding her. A few critics have even suggested that she is meant to represent Princess Di (there are a few nudges in that direction, particularly involving the hysterical reactions of the masses to her, in Florence and in the Moghul capital). Actually, if we have to drag contemporary or personal comparisons into a novel which really doesn’t deserve them, there’s a much more likely candidate to have been portrayed through a beautiful Indian princess, who will ultimately abandon her lovers. But if The Enchantress of Florence does indeed have some bearing on Rushdie’s ex-wife, then it is a very touching tribute.

           There are flaws in the novel. The material itself might actually have worked better under a Carter or an Eco; sometimes you sense that Rushdie is straining too hard to be “a Catherine wheel”, full of explosions and humour, as with lines like,

           “He was as strong as a white bull and he had journeyed by raft to the source of the Yellow River...where he ate braised tiger penis from a golden bowl, and he had hunted the white rhinoceros of the Ngorongoro Crater, and he had...”

           Much of the time he handles the humour and swashbuckling with remarkable ease (The Enchantress of Florence is actually a lighter read than your average Wilbur Smith) but when he overworks a good joke, it shows. The sexual content is bawdily high, reminiscent of the similarly foul-mouthed and foul-minded historical epic Q by the Luther Blissett quartet, (and another novel which could be fairly construed as an elaborate literary joke) but sometimes the farce turns sour, as when Niccolo Vespucci is visited by two prostitutes of inequal size, Skeleton and Mattress. The opening few chapters lack the subtlety and flow of what comes after, and as a whole, it probably falls short of being a classic for fault of being a very self-conscious romp. Nevertheless, particularly in the final scenes, The Enchantress of Florence proves itself a remarkable book, and more fun than anyone has any right to expect of a ‘serious writer’ like Rushdie. When John Sutherland has rogan josh-ed his copy, he’ll doubtless want to go out and buy another one.


September 15, 2008

The Innocence of Serpents

Ralph, with the conscious grin of a ‘worldly man’, likes to bring up during family gatherings the fact that Fiona’s innocence had attracted him to her from the very beginning.

        “She had no idea how to use a computer,” he says, “and she never read the newspapers. I thought, this is something different.”

        Her brother-in-laws chuckle at this, and her sisters perceive him consequently as the voice of experience, as if he is somehow a polar opposite to her ‘unworldliness’; an image which suits his powerful shoulders and his red beard. She’s never been able to understand the beard. Its shape lies somewhere between a fashionable goatee and the heavier trawlerman’s fuzz; she often finds herself tracing its contours late at night, a gesture he seems to take as sexual approval.

        “Tell me, Ralph,” her older sister purrs. “What do you and Fiona think about getting another car? William won’t hear of it, because of the environment, but I…”

        The third or fourth time this occurs, Fiona realises with a thick shudder just how good Ralph is at handling people; both parties end their debate with the sense that he’s definitely on their side, but that, as a result of an unfortunate technicality, a compromise is be the most sensible option- and, in fact, he expects no less from them. Her sisters, in Ralph’s absence, always turn the conversation back to him, with shared glances as if they somehow have access to him in a sense that she, Fiona, does not.

        When they move in together, she takes the instinctive move of cultivating her innocence, in the certain knowledge that he finds it attractive in her: she stops watching the news altogether and cuts down on her lunches in town with Mimi.

Ralph dislikes Mimi, who is so well-informed that she always seems to know more about the latest scandal or violent outrage than the actual reporters or authorities involved.

        “Did you hear about the hoodies down

Chiswick Lane?” she asks once over their salads.

        Fiona remembers vaguely having seen a group of overweight young men lounging about by the road sign a few mornings ago. Mimi’s eyes bulge.

        “My dear,” she exclaims, “last night they stabbed a young Indian man to death in the suburbs. To death!”

        Fiona takes a mouthful of salad.

        “Weren’t you frightened?” Mimi asks.

        Fiona isn’t certain. She may have been worried that they’d look at her as she passed. From an early age, she’s always blushed beneath the stares of men.

        “I wish I was more like you,” Mimi replies with a gaze of infinite wisdom. “You’re so much better off than I am, being so innocent.”

        Fiona breaks off their next lunch, and Mimi appears early the next morning, peering through the windows and shouting,

        “Yoo-hoo! I thought you might be feeling down!” while clutching a posy of forecourt lilies and a small jar of tablets which, she informs Fiona, always lift her up while she’s suffering from depression. This infuriates Ralph so much that he spends the entire day in his craft workshop, and the next week Fiona meets Mimi for lunch in a new restaurant on the other side of town,

        The craft workshop consists of the basement, or ‘cellar’ as Ralph keeps referring to it, insisting that the space is far from the vulgarity of the American term. This room, it is continually made clear to Fiona, is out of bounds.

        “A man needs his space,” Ralph says helplessly on the day she moves in, as if he has no choice but to obey this well-known law of the sexes.

        That Ralph is a creative type she has no doubt. He seems to like to observe the world all around him, and he takes great pleasure in strolling through the town centre, swinging their carrier bags like bolas on the ends of his great meaty arms. Her pleasure lies in watching Ralph, his scarlet cheeks a pure contrast to the tepid grey streets, and thinking,

This is mine, above all of this.

But the fact remains that she hasn’t seen a table, or even a bookshelf, emerge from the workshop, and, as she points out one evening, a little handcrafted furniture would be more pleasant to use than the heavy, built-to-order stuff he got when he bought the place.

        “I’m working on a project,” he explains. “You don’t want to see it before it’s completed, do you? You wouldn’t want to see your baby before it’d grown its arms and legs and things.”

        It’s the first time he’s mentioned children to her, and she wishes immediately that he’d spoken with more elegance.

       

        “They’d been missing for a week before a hiker found them,” Mimi says, adding with a touch of reproval, “But you’d have known that already if we saw each other more often.”

        Fiona orders the salmon.

        “I could always tell that gang were up to no good. And now this proves it! Stabbed to death, all four of them! Placed in a bath of quicklime! Oh…just salad, thank you, I have a date later.”

        The youths’ skeletal remains, Mimi explains, were found dumped by the embankment; the place with all the graffiti.

        “A rival gang,” she says triumphantly. “That’s what the police are thinking. A territorial dispute - like animals, you see. Every street, every borough that we see, they all have secret lines drawn from each to each. They say, ‘this is mine: trespass at your peril.’”

        Fiona wonders aloud how a gang of teenagers would know how to dispose of the bodies in a bath of quicklime. Mimi raises her eyebrows.

        “These aren’t children,” she says. “That’s what you have to remember, Fiona. They’re clued-in. I worry about you at night, because you stroll about without knowing about all the terrible things out there. Or even wanting to know. There’s something funny about that.”

        She hesitates before asking Ralph if he considers her naïve. He gazes up at her (and tonight his beard makes her think of a Victorian detective) for a few moments in silence.

        “You’re different,” he says at last. “You’re not like the others. And remember, that’s what first attracted me to you.”

        He must have sensed her immediate dissatisfaction with this, because he adds,

        “I mean, these days society centres around the opposite of innocence, whatever that is. You’re on the outskirts of that, you’re to some extent disengaged. But that makes you disillusioned in a way that none of them are. Like…you know…these kids, hanging around on street corners, girls throwing up in gutters…it’s not nice.”

        She asks him if he knew about the youths’ murders.

        “Yeah,” he replies, uncomfortably. “I read it in the papers. But the point, darling, is that everybody wishes they were more like you. I know I do. But I have to protect you from all this, so I have to know about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t wish I was more…”

        Innocent, she thinks.

        She wakes before dawn and is disturbed by a vision of Ralph, moving silently through the dark.

        In the morning, over their egg and toast, he asks her, like someone trying to figure out a complicated problem,

        “What is the opposite of innocence?”

        She suggests guilt.

        “Three hen nighters,” Mimi says. “Just…you know…white trash sorts, unpleasant women, probably too drunk to stand. The last the bouncers saw of them was at three a.m. They think it was a gang of youths.”

        Fiona points out that the gang of youths have already been stabbed to death and bathed in quicklime.

        “This is a different gang of youths,” Mimi snaps. “They’re like wasps; there are always more to fill the place of others in the hive. You understand?”

        Fiona falls silent.

        She walks home through Chiswick Lane. A group of hooded children stand lurking on the kerbside corner; their eyes drift up to meet her. She thinks of Ralph, the elixir, the opposing force to all of this decay, and strides forward.

        She finds him washing his hands in the kitchen sink. He jolts up like a schoolboy caught with a dirty magazine.

        “What’s that on your hands?” she asks.

        He glances down and seems to flinch at the sight of the seeping liquid.

        “Blood,” he says. “I cut myself on my lathe.” She does not move. He adds,

        “Please...go into the living room. I don’t like you to see me injured. It makes me feel…well…less heroic somehow.” His face, half-concealed, she realises now, beneath his beard, is twitching.

        “Where’s the cut?” she asks.

        “Palm,” he says, and wraps his hand in the nearby dishcloth. “It’s not as deep as it looks. It’ll heal.”

        She sits, quietly, at the kitchen table.

        “Are you all right?” he asks her, all concern.

        “Some women were killed in the town centre,” she says. “It just…oh, God…I don’t know how these things can happen.”

        “Mimi again?”

        She nods. His great body seems to tense. He shakes his head.

        “You shouldn’t see her. She panics you- it’s not healthy. Just because she likes to take an interest in all the horrible things that go on…well, it doesn’t mean she should.”

        “You’d better go,” she says, “and clean the blood off the saw as well.”

        “Lathe,” he replies, standing still by the sink. “It was the lathe I cut myself on.”

He goes. She counts the five, six, seven thumps down the stairs and into the craft workshop.  

        He wears the rag across his hand at breakfast, and the day after. He grimaces whenever he takes something up in it.

        Mimi does not come to lunch the following Wednesday. Her mobile refuses to pick up.

        She walks home from the restaurant. Ralph’s van is absent from the driveway. She unlocks the front door and stands, still, for a moment in the kitchen.

        Then she goes into the hallway and treads the seven steps down to the craft workshop. The door hangs ajar, as if inviting her to enter.

        And in front of the door, a tiny wrapped package. The card, addressed to her, reads,

        That together two broken halves may be a whole. That you will allow me to continue protecting you from all of this.

        He knew I’d come down this far, she thinks.

        Inside, a shining ring.

        She shuts the workshop door and treads gently back up the seven steps.

        Their lawn is a shining mass of green. She only notices now how dull and brown their neighbours’ gardens are, as if theirs is blessed with some special fertility.

        So much greater, she thinks, and falls to her knees. If it’s a choice between the world and him

       

        Swelling tears tremble and streak across her cheeks. Mimi was a fool, she thinks, not to understand the real virtue of her innocence.

        “Young lady!” She looks up. An elderly woman, buried in a scarf and raincoat, is watching her from the pavement.

        “Are you quite all right?” she asks, with suspicion rather than concern.

        “Yes,” Fiona replies, sobbing and laughing at the same time, “I’m all right. Thank God, I’m quite all right.”


September 11, 2008

Abu–Khan

           Abu-Khan dashes through endless bronze savannah.

          Work-Finished-Philip traipses on home through traffic junctions and darkness. The three skinny Iranian kids are staring, with shameless lust, at a pretty woman who shakes out her hair by the bus stop.

The unsubtlety, he thinks, smiling, of innocence, and then, gazing at her out of the shadows of his eyes,

           I, too, am part of this landscape.

           “I can almost taste you,” Harriet says, and Aroused-Philip rises to the challenge.

           When Philip-Deceiving sneaks into the study late at night, he becomes Abu-Khan, firing off his twin pistols, rising from the dead. Hours later, the clock strikes three and Frazzled-Philip wakes as if from sleep, switches the monitor off, and coils his body around her as, he knows, Aroused-Philip would have wanted him to.

           Struck-By-Moments-Of-Beauty-Philip, walking to work, passes a schoolyard and is momentarily transformed by the plateau of lifeless concrete. Philip-Dulled-By-Routine sinks through, hours later, into the keyboard. He is close, he knows, to touching Abu-Khan.

           An attractive working colleague brushes up against him late in the afternoon, her lips nearing his. A searing erection. He remembers, later, that he’d once met her boyfriend at a dinner party. They arrange to meet the following week for a quick drink.

           Slumping in his living-room chair, he finds his right hand to be trembling uncontrollably.

           “What’re you afraid of,” he asks it, uncertainly.

          

           The kind psychiatrist, Doctor Howser, attempts to explain Philip to himself in a room surrounded by painted vases halfway to Basingstoke.

           He’s right, Explained-Philip thinks. I have to reconnect with my life.

           Doctor Howser’s door closes quietly behind him and Driving-Philip is too busy focused on the road to reconnect to anything.

           Abu-Khan blasts out shot after shot at the treacherous youths sharing a joint outside the apartment block, leering at Philip-Exhausted. They seem to be invulnerable.

           A tearful Harriet asks him to let her in; Philip has no way of explaining that he can’t speak for every new mood. He simply holds her, as if by instinct, but after a few seconds she rips herself away and slams the front door behind her. With a new rising interest, he thinks,

           She can change, too.

           Philip-Of-The-Epiphany waits before the bathroom mirror, as if trying something different. He vows that this Philip is the true version, and frowns, hoping to hold on to this mindset. His work colleague calls, and cancels their date.

           Alone-Philip watches the television, but cannot immerse himself in the faces he sees there.

           Drunk-Philip wipes out. Philip-Who’s-Been-Drunk wakes up, and ignores the phone. Philip-To-Mother finally picks up, and assures her, truthfully, that everything is fine.

           When Philip-Suicidal finally leaps from the Embankment, it’s Abu-Khan who continues to dash, roaring, through endless bronze savannah.


September 10, 2008

The Black Hole Machine

         We need to talk. I love you x

         I notice him before Jack has a chance.

         “That our man?” I ask him. He turns in his seat.

         “Peter!” he shouts, and waves. The silver-haired man smiles, waves back, and approaches. A tall man, I notice, with one of those long faces I’ve always associated with schoolteachers. His eyebrows soar in greeting.

         “Today,” he says, unwinding his woollen scarf, “the world will come to an end.”

         “Pint,” Jack says in encouragement, nudging the glass forward across the table. “This is my friend William- the children’s author. William, meet Peter Blakeley.”

         Blakeley shakes my hand with a kind of grimace.

         “I haven’t had the pleasure of coming across your work, sir,” he says, and sits across from me. “Have you read up on the Black Hole Machine?” he adds, glancing at Jack.

         “The hadron collider?” Jack asks.

        

         I glance down, and write,

         We are talking, aren’t we?

         In a final, pathetic attempt to translate anger into the text message, I leave off the kiss-mark at the end.

        

         “The universe will be destroyed,” Blakeley says. “I have no doubt of that.”

         “Really?” I ask, stowing the mobile away in my trousers. He continues, ignoring the pint set before him,

         “It’s an instinct, I suppose, but I can’t help but believe in it...the sensation that things are coming to an end. Don’t you feel that, sir? All of the important matters seem to have ended, and-” he glances out into the street, “-all the new matters seem either so apocalyptic or so utterly trivial that you know they can’t possibly lead anywhere.”

         His grey eyes watch me for a moment.

         “Well,” Jack says, “we’re in a pub which also happens to be dashing distance from a very beautiful church. I’d say we’re covered both ways. Pint,” he adds, in case Blakeley has forgotten.

         My pocket rumbles. Tricia has written,

         This isn’t talking.

         I realise, with a pang of self-pity, that she’s taken her kiss-mark away too.

         “Will you put that damn thing away?” Jack asks, draining the last of his lager. “You’re better company when you’re not focused on a bit of plastic.”

         Blakeley finally takes a sip of his drink. Jack, who has never wasted a penny in his life, seems to relax in the knowledge that his gesture has not gone to fast.  A ticklish sensation makes me look down again;a young tabby cat saunters through our legs, purring.

         “Was that your wife, young man?” Blakeley asks, still gazing at me.

         “Girlfriend,” I reply, and put the phone away.

         “When you’re young,” he says, his eyes drawing over to the barmaid, “you think everything lasts forever.”

        

         The church bells strike twelve. Outside, a couple of tourists have gathered to watch. The lager froths through my mouth.

         “Excuse me,” Blakeley says, and rises. “Do you know where the bathroom is?” he asks Jack, who points it out with a kind of grim cheer.

         I reply;

         Meet me at the Cafe later. I do want to talk to you. I wish I wasn't such an arse.

         Gushing, I think, after the message has gone. Gushing, and the wrong words entirely. Jack is watching me with a simmering rage.

         “Can you try to avoid getting in a fight with this man?” he asks after a few moments of silence. “Some of us actually want to penetrate the inner circle. And it’s your round.”

         I finish my drink.

         “If he’s not senile,” I reply, “then there won’t be any inner circle to penetrate in twenty minutes’ time.” Childish, again. What’s the matter with me?

Jack snarls back,

         “For God’s sake, at least try to be civil. If I’m very lucky I can still take him to lunch afterwards.”

         I leave him at the table. The barmaid is from South Africa, as it turns out, and looking for a place to live.

         “So, young man,” Blakeley says, returning, and I notice for the first time how he’s abandoned ‘sir’ in favour of ‘young man’, “You don’t feel as though the universe is coming to a close?”

         Jack flinches.

         “Call me childish,” I reply, “but when it does happen, I’d prefer to think it’ll be more climactic. People running around screaming, flames in the clouds, etcetera.”

         “You’re a writer,” he says. The insult stings. Jack swigs at his lager, casting sullen eyes at the pair of us. We’re not playing his game.

         “I feel like Scheherazade,” Blakeley says, and his eyes, no longer challenging mine, are on the clock. He clears his throat, and begins,

         “All I’ve ever done is to tell story upon story- on the grounds that I myself was not much more than the sum of them. And, of course, it follows that I would die if I ever stopped.

         “I never felt much for my wife. I married her on the assumption that she was a sort of love interest- imagine my horror when I realised she, or whatever it was which used her face, seemed to believe I was a good man. My son’s disrespect matters less than you’d think, because I know it’s directed towards another figure, a father-puppet, standing a few feet in front of me.”

         My pocket rumbles. God, I think, watching the old man, perhaps she said ‘no’. I run my hand along the shape of the phone; a box, I think, containing the world.

         “Things can’t be allowed to just peter out,” Blakeley says. “We deserve to go up in flames.” He stares at his empty glass. The clock reads twenty-five past twelve. The time has passed.

         I consider saying something. But the truth is, I feel a little sorry for the old man. He’s given away too much of himself; sacrificed himself to a god who never came. The cat mews from somewhere below our feet, as if in agitation.

        

         “Well,” says Jack, with a meaningful glance at his watch, “What now?”

        

        


Peter Ackroyd review

The lives of the Romantics are filled with fascinating coincidences. It’s curious that Mary Shelley should have written a classic novel featuring evil doubles and a central character whose body is found washed up on the shore when her own husband would later be have his death at sea predicted by his doppelganger. It’s equally as strange that Shelley’s friend Keats, whose surgical background also connects him tenuously to Frankenstein, and whose epitaph read “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”, should have been present, through his volume of poetry, at Shelley’s death by water. But none of these peculiarities go anywhere- and Peter Ackroyd has, in The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, constructed an entire novel around them.

           In Ackroyd’s novel, Frankenstein is a London student of the sciences and a friend of Shelley, who fits neatly into the role of Henry Clerval from the original, and indeed, who will eventually invite him to an Alpine holiday with his new wife and a few choice friends.  In the meantime, however, Victor is living a secret life accepting bodies from the city’s grave-robbers- and eventually he succeeds in returning to life the corpse of a young Cockney poet who has recently died of consumption.

           If any of the plot so far has made you groan, then this is not the book for you. Ackroyd’s skill, and indeed, audacity in reshaping the past has given him a name as an author, as well as a historian- his best novel, Hawksmoor, depicted the eponymous London architect as a devil-worshipping genius. But that - much better - novel played on our ignorance of history, forcing us to realise that while Hawksmoor’s works are a familiar and comforting part of our daily lives, we, the average reader, know next to nothing about the man himself or his motives. The first, most obvious blunder here is that every literate human being knows the story of Frankenstein and the Romantics; the source material is close to over-familiar. Ackroyd, however- and perhaps we must accept that historical minds sometimes fail to distinguish the popular knowledge from the expert- makes obvious references to the original with the pride of a man who thinks he has constructed a brilliant Joycean enigma. Some of these nudges are subtle; not everyone will pick up on Victor’s flight through London by a “frightful fiend” of shadow, just as not every reader will understand why the Creature (“Keat” as he is known) is suddenly aquatic. But it’s hard to suppress a groan when Victor muses,

           “I could no more prepare myself for society than if I had spent the past months in the frozen wastes of the Arctic.”

           Or, equally, when Mary Godwin gasps,

           “I wonder, Mr Shelley, that you keep a boat in this dreadful weather.”

           Friedberg and Seltzer, the film-makers responsible for the string of execrable “... Movie” movies, have been jeered by critics everywhere because their ‘spoofs’ think it’s enough to reference celebrities and films without actually having anything to say about them. It’s much the same here; why, for instance, does Polidori read out a section of Dracula in Switzerland, rather than the real story of the vampiric Lord Ruthven? And sometimes Ackroyd just gets things wrong, as when Shelley, fifty years too early, begins to discuss the “pale Galilean.” It’s a peculiar error from a historian, but then this is a book full of peculiar errors, not least the title, which calls upon the cliché of the original title while abandoning its brevity.

           The other real issue here is that, as this is essentially a rewrite of an already bizarre novel, Ackroyd has to somehow avoid seeming weak in comparison. He attempts this through excess - the first action of the Keats-Creature is to masturbate – and through odd little plot twists. Some of these are fine; I liked the fact that, in place of the shambling assistant the Universal films forced upon us, Victor’s experiments are aided by a cheerful Cockney lad called ‘Fred’. Others are directly detrimental to the novel’s themes. Elizabeth, Victor’s incestuous bride, dies of natural causes early on, eliminating any theories about Frankenstein desiring a non-sexual method of reproduction. And while Shelley is prominent, the theme of “the Modern Prometheus” is all but wiped out because Ackroyd has his Creature read, in place of Paradise Lost...Robinson Crusoe. Even the characters suffer. The original Victor studies the works of the dark magicians Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa because, he tells us, he longed for secret knowledge, hidden from the masses. Ackroyd’s Victor studies the same authors because his friend Shelley recommends them.

           This is an exceptionally infuriating book. It doesn’t lack intelligence exactly so much as the wisdom not to flaunt its own intelligence- I couldn’t help but be reminded of the passages in The Da Vinci Code where characters quote endless encyclopaedia facts about their surroundings, which is not a comparison Ackroyd would want put on the dust-jacket. There are some pleasures to be had. An absurdly Byronic Byron pops up late on, enlivening the proceedings with sparkling breakfast repartee such as,

           “I thought you were about to bugger him. Where are the kidneys?” It’s definitely better-written than the original Frankenstein, in general. But the rawness of Mary Shelley’s novel, much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was heightened by its tendencies to melodrama as a sort of emotional nightmare. Ackroyd’s Victor may no longer be a sententious bore, but he is now so measured and sane that it’s impossible in him as a man straining towards godhood. And there are still patches of clunking rhetoric;

           “I did not ask to come into this world. Am I monstrous? Are you monstrous? Is the world monstrous?”

           The real crime of this pointless curiosity of a novel is that it saps, vampire-like, at the worth of everything it touches. Mary Shelley, whose victory was surely to have risen above the novel’s three posturing masculine voices, is reduced to a damsel-in-distress within the narrative. Shelley’s death loses something of his tragedy with the suggestion that he was dragged underwater by a zombified, aquatic Keats- if only there was something in the novel to suggest that Ackroyd meant this to be funny. Even the Whitbread-winning Hawksmoor suffers, because Victor, now urbane and cat-torturing, has been lifted straight from the earlier character. And we begin to wonder; is Peter Ackroyd’s success in nothing more than referencing hidden knowledge to form atmosphere? After Shelley’s death, the natural climax, the whole affair falls apart. There are a few apparently random references to Dostoyevskyan freedom from morality, and the final twist – if I can use the word ‘twist’ to describe such a crumbling plot device- will be a surprise to nobody who has read the original, or, perhaps, read a book or seen a film.

           I can now only recall one moment when the author finds a new perspective on this very, very familiar story.  An innocent man, hanged for a crime committed by the Creature, is left to the mercy of the grave-robbers, who, it is suggested, will sell the body to more experimenters like Victor himself. It makes a pretty good allegory for the state of both the Frankenstein tale and the history of the Romantics, dug up again and again in different forms and wearing ever more peculiar masks.

          


September 06, 2008

'Random' poetry

1

Spider-

chalk threads traced over

an old-potting-shed window;

staring in, spooked by the corners where

things seemed to gather, aching to use

them, sightstruck. i’ve yet to replicate

the dimensions

of that

morning;

watched twice, the aspect holds

only

dust-tapped jars.

2

Watch;

kinetic

strings are moving

in the blear, still as glaciers.

I kneaded my knuckles

into the thumbs of my eyes

to see

visions like this. spaceless vaults of lights are weaving

inward and stray. motes, picturesque, are leaping

through my garden. rain is bursting over

the still patio, unbroken

ash.


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