23 September, 2009

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

Birds don’t know they sing. They don’t know anything. They don’t have a word for what they do or words at all. Humans write, talk and sing words. The singing stands out against talking which, I think uniquely in the animal kingdom, becomes a loud buzzing when a lot of humans talk simultaneously.

“Like snowflakes,” my parents said, “no two human faces are the same.”

When you first hear this you ask what about identical twins?

Now I ask who cares.

You see so many they all merge into one, an every-face; a buzzing mash of grease, sinew, eyeball and fat. You give up on voices, then faces. This is how they get you.

There’s a reason they’re called the heat. I feel them, can’t spot the faces.

They’ve got the spoon and dropper I dropped, but I get away on the subway.

20 September, 2009

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Life is a game of chess being prosecuted in a room-sized industrial oven by a pair of glowering maniacs with sweating teeth and dirty fingernails. And don‘t imagine that they know all the rules. The chessboard—just look at it there, with its cheap veneer peeling and adhering to the undersides of passing shoes—is Washington DC, fair and flaky capital of this Proud Republic. As for me, I’m the red queen, she of the telescopic neck and unpredictable moves. I’m like a kung-fu monkey with short-term memory loss. Oh, and did I mention that there’s been a revolution? That’s right: even the communists are on my tail; this town ain’t big enough for the half of me.

This is going to require a concession on my part. More than one, even. I begin by divesting myself of the incriminating materials: the not-so-silver-anymore spoon goes southwards at the station entrance, which I leave behind like I was never there, sailing over the turnstile with movie-star panache. One problem: my sheer inherent gravitas makes lying low an all-but-impossible proposition. Wherever I go, there I am, usually making some kind of God-awful scene and working the clear-eyed, clean-limbed onlookers of Americaville into a toxic lather. Speaking of which, this fellow here, the one propping the door open, fits the bill like he was the original model: aerodynamic, government-approved haircut; a suit that looks like it was fashioned by human hands, rather than shitted out by a cloth-eating monster from the sewers; and a smile as wide and white as the jawbone of a killer whale. I spit something not quite blood-coloured on his Italian loafers and his teeth swell up like concrete water wings.

Some lab-coated narc is on my tail, shouting unintelligible threats and brandishing what appears to be a bloody corkscrew, at least from the back of my head, where my vision isn’t as keen. I tell him to go lose himself somewhere; I have an appointment in the desert in one hour and if I’m late they’ll flood the place with radiation—the kind that makes your extremities shrivel up and die, leaving only a torso and a deflated football for a head. He doesn’t even try to get the picture. Sensing an impending altercation, I leap across the tracks, just in time to catch onto the back end of a passing train, which tears me away down darkened tunnels at a speed that defies scientific explanation. The narc calls after me, but the only noise I hear is the frenzied rending of stale subway air. The next stop is home; it has to be.

16 September, 2009

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

On the corner of Black and Kinross, beneath a sky the colour of hard clay, a tree stood with skeletal limbs outstretched. Its trunk bent, leaning away from the shambling homeless and turned up factory owners in polished boots, well cut slate suits. A terminal sun silhouetted their creeping black bodies against a broken brick wall. A tattered man sat in the gutter, snivelling on a sleeve the colour of dried mucus, stray hand feeling the jutted spine of a yellow cat. The cat smelt inside the man’s pocket and yowled; the man muttered something profane. A half-gutted fish flopped out onto the street. The man began to pull at the fish, but the cat dug its paw into the man’s hand and hissed. Slowly, the man pulled his hand back, and then quickly balled it into a fist. He punched the cat squarely on the side of its pinched, starved face, and the cat tumbled into the dust, narrowly avoiding a car that did not stop or even slow down.

Amidst this grotesquery, Clyde looked out from the dirty glass, lip jutting, hands clenching and unclenching in time with the feeble beating of his heart. His eyes fell on the flailing tree; it had already lost all its leaves and it was barely September. It was a sapling; his nights spent beneath the great ash trees stood at the bottom of the shabby brick lean-to that his father called home, curled into his snoring older sister, had informed his view of this. Clyde wondered how long this tree had lived on the corner of Black and Kinross; whether it was still alive, whether it still felt alive. Cars honked angrily as a commotion blew up outside of a butcher’s.

He felt a warm, sweaty clap on his shoulder and turned to face his father, who was busy brushing at his moustache. His nose twitched a little and he sniffed before meticulously running his hands slowly through his thinning hair, forming a skewed side parting. He smoothed it down, but this only had the effect of combing more hair over the less bald part of his scalp, so that it looked as though all of his hair grew on one side of his head. Patting at it with satisfaction, he nodded and looked expectantly at Clyde. Clyde’s lip twitched into half a smile, so that it resembled that leer he caught himself practicing more and more often when he thought of the city women his mother so denounced.

‘You look like a gentleman, Father.’
‘I am well aware of how and to what ends I present myself, my son.’
There was a pause. Clyde’s father’s hair flapped a little in the hot air streaming through from the kitchen. Clyde suppressed his furious sense of shame. Deluded self-righteous prig, he thought to himself as his father set Clyde’s sister on her feet and thrust a digit into her still-dreaming face. Clyde’s mother emerged from the bathroom, and again Clyde fought his urges with his seemingly bottomless reserve of self-disgust and hatred. His father returned to him, and again caught that strange mix of embarrassment and delight flickering on his son’s face. He stood stock still and looked at his father.
‘Asa. Asa,’ called Clyde’s mother. His father turned and raised an eyebrow.
‘Come here dear, the men are leaving their factories. We can reach them now.’ She frowned and, reaching up, patted at her husband’s hair, readdressing the prominent bald spot Asa had so conspicuously missed. ‘Let’s go the sapling. Esta likes to stand beneath it, and it will provide a little shade should the rain fall.’

Asa nodded in decision. ‘A good idea. Clyde! Clyde,’ he repeated as his son stood watching a man shine a timepiece with a laced neckerchief. He walked over quickly and spoke into his ear. ‘My boy, that man trades in gold and secrets. He is neither worth your time nor the inquisitive nature we thank Him for bestowing upon you.’
Clyde had grown up with two fathers; he had come to the conclusion quickly that an ever-present Father who nonetheless showed no apparent interest in him or his family’s struggles was a paradox only an idiot would indulge in. He turned back to his father and smiled quickly. ‘What shall we sing, Father?’ His father smiled broadly and patted Clyde on the back. ‘I thought we would begin with Just as I am. What do you think? Would you like to sing something else?’
Clyde shook his head. ‘No Father. Just as I am is a song men of all persuasions can listen to. I shall be happy to sing it.’
Asa beamed and looked to his wife, fussing over Esta who clutched her organ to her breast. Clyde saw the piercing look of sadness flicker over his sister’s face, and felt wrenching sadness in his heart. ‘Just as I am, Elvira my dear,’ he called out. His wife looked up, startled. ‘Of course I do Asa. I’m troubled you would even ask.’ Asa’s face stopped moving as his train of thought derailed itself, and he stood motionless for a moment with his mouth hanging open. Clyde watched the man with the timepiece resume his walk up the high street. Asa recollected his thoughts and led the family out of the dirty food hall, empty except for a pocked and smoking waiter and a fat yellowish man tending two black pieces of meat on a hissing grill.

As the family crossed the street, Clyde began to envision them in his mind’s eye from atop the factory across from the pitiful sapling, watching his fool of a father march the four children into position before taking up his place alongside his mother. The street was now quickly filling up with browbeaten men who dabbed incessantly at their greased foreheads and wiped filthy hands on filthier pants. Clyde’s mother quickly handed round the battered hymn books to the children, and directed them to the correct pages. Although Clyde could feel the book in his hands, he had the strangest sensation that he was touching the thing through another boy’s body; he was merely a presence inside a hunk of sullied flesh.
With a slow, agonising start, he began to realise he could not see from his own eyes, and he became more and more uncomfortable as he watched himself from atop the factory turn the pages of the book, feeling the book but not seeing it. He scrabbled frantically and then felt his mother touch his shoulder. He saw her repeat the action from his bird’s eye view, and he felt his body relax. He began to worry frantically and desperately tried to see the scene in front of his body as he thought it would look. Yet the more he tried, the more effort he expelled, the further away he felt from returning to himself, and the more alone he felt on top of the factory. The split was agonising; almost physically painful. He could feel something inside his body, something he did not ever want to let go of, but something that seemed to want to inexorably pull away from his desperate grasp. He was terrified his family would not notice.
And they did not.
His sister began to play; the children began to sing, his parents, both bolt upright and his father’s chin raised slightly, so that it almost looked like he was watching Clyde, writhing with fear, on top of his factory.
The family opened their mouths as the organ rang out.

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed on me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

A few people stood and watched the wretched crew now, and Clyde felt an inkling of something like gratitude as the men congregated in front of the family with their backs turned to him. But gratitude to whom? For what? He watched his singing body; his mother’s hands draped lovingly over his shoulders down onto his chest, and felt that awful shame drop into his gut. But now his heart raced, and his fingers trembled.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

His father stood, the words booming out long and guttural, in his deep Bostonian drawl. His hands were folded in front of him, and Clyde saw how he tried to make eye contact with some of the members of his audience. All of them turned away.

Just as I am, tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Some of the men below began to form small groups, evidently recognizing one another, and eventually turned away from Clyde’s family to engage in conversation. He watched two men quickly nod and point at his mother and sister Esta, and then they fell about cackling, like birds fighting over a carcass. Clyde’s lips and cheeks burned with fury, but not all of it was directed at the men.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind--
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find--
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Clyde suddenly caught sight of the man with timepiece again. He had just left a baker’s shop and was now clutching a small brown waxed bag. His route to his waiting vehicle took him straight past Clyde and his bedraggled family. He did not stop. He paused as two swarthy workmen parted to let the man through, and he walked to his car where his chauffeur waited. He got in, and the engine started, a powerful rumbling noise that belched a thick cloud of bluish smoke into the darkening sky. The audience began to take their leave.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

One man remained in the falling darkness as his father led them to the finale. The organ stopped dead. Esta got up off her knees. The two young girls huddled against the sapling; Clyde knew now that it was dead. He realised he could no longer feel his mother’s hands on his heart. He looked away as his father began his call to the evening sky and empty streets.

15 September, 2009

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Lakewood, Colorado. 1924

The Ironfists are nearing the climax of their journey. The Ironfists are a classic family unit - two parents and double that in children - and solidly American. Judging by their appearances, they are a poor family. I think I even saw one of those shoes with the toe seperated from the sole, flapping up and down as the owner (one of the boy-children) walks. Disgustingly, the eldest child is pulling a portable organ behind her as they walk, even though it has no wheels. Eventually they stop on the corner of Kipling and Colfax and arrange themselves in formation around the organ, with the pulling-girl also the instrumentalist. She plays, and they all sing. Religious music. But not the exciting sort that black people play, for these poor people are white.
The corner of Kipling and Colfax is moderately busy, but the passers-by pay them no mind until a group of three cockneys (one of whom is Ray Winstone) and a Venetian stop a few metres from the group. One of the three cockneys - but not the one who is Ray Winstone - is talking on one of those very large, to our eyes embarrassing, mobile phones typical of the era, and plays no further part in the scene. The Venetian carries a very large Gladstone bag. He and the other two cockneys install themselves on the large front steps of a property, from where they can observe the family, but also indulge themselves. The cockneys produce two large marijuana cigarettes, one apiece, and light them with cheap bic lighters. The Venetian prefers cocaine, some of which he produces from the Gladstone bag. One of the cockneys - but I shan't say whether or not it was Ray Winstone - remarks on the terrible state of the family, even ruminating on their smell, even though they are sat too far away and he is just hypothesising. His speech is wry and cutting for the purpose of amusing his companions, and his voice is slow, more so given the long pauses he often creates as he takes enormous puffs of his drug and blows the smoke in to the hot air. The Venetian interjects, emboldened and aggressive from his own drug, states that while he agrees with the general state of the family, his personal opinion of the mother is much higher. He uses several dirty words to describe his feelings for her, and both the cockneys relent and agree with him.
Ray Winstone opens the Gladstone bag again and pulls from it a small leather pouch of crisps, which he opens in the standard 1924 manner; with a pair of secateurs. The crisps are somewhat smaller than crisps of today, and very inconsistent in form and texture. I cannot remember the flavour, but I am fairly sure it was either Smoke or Oriental, both of which were among the most popular crisp flavours in the hot summer of 1924.
The boy - not the one who I believe had the broken shoe, but the other, older one - looks on at the cockneys and Venetian enviously. The focus he puts in to his thoughts of the four travellers would distract him from his singing if it was not already the most perfunctory performance I could remember hearing. Other members of his family cast sidelong glances at him, and his mother of which the Venetian was so fond even tugged at his grubby and ripped shirt to try and make him sing at a level more commensurate with the efforts of the rest of his family. But in reality, his singing has been this bad for weeks. His mind has been full of daydreams of better lives, his current life disgusting him. Right now, he dreams of Venice and mobile phones, of wandering through the streets and stopping only to partake in good drugs and crisp-eating, instead of subsistence busking and portable organ maintenance.
The cockney who is not Ray Winstone and is not on the phone notices the boy's attitude and countenance, and sees through to the boy's innermost desires immediately, for they are ones he himself once had. He sees in the boy an opportunity to fill a vacancy he has been charged with filling. He pulls out a Motorola RAZR - at the time this was still a very cool phone - and writes a text message. "Found a guy for the job," it says. He selects send and scrolls through his phone book, stopping on the contact Local Mafia Boss. He looks at the boy one more time before nodding to himself and sending the message.
The boy watches this happen as he continues to pretend to sing whilst daydreaming. He notices the man looking at him, and the text message being sent, but he does not understand the significance this event will have on his life in the next months, and that many of his dreams will soon come true.

14 September, 2009

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

All day the city baked, and by evening its bricks and roads and metal fixtures had amassed such a surplus of heat and light that they were able to sustain the afternoon long past its natural span. Tall buildings seemed to rise like stone fingers from beneath the desert’s radiant surface, enclosing those souls unlucky enough to find themselves still in town after the hours of business, and pressing them into an involuntary embrace of body heat and blinding, stinking sweat. It felt as though the air had been flooded with hot blood, pulsating to the beat of some great, unseen organ, hidden deep underfoot.

The main street was busy with people trying in vain to keep each other at a distance, but it was still possible to identify the real strangers: a group of six—a middle-aged couple and their four children—dressed cheaply and carrying a collection of hymn books and a portable organ. They made their way slowly through the throng, the adults leading with obvious purpose but held back by their less eager offspring, until they reached a large intersection; here they halted, and the mother, whose status as chief authority was obvious at the most cursory inspection, began to coordinate. She took the portable organ from her husband and handed it to the eldest child, a girl of about fifteen. Then she lined up the others and distributed the battered hymn books; there were three between the five of them: one for the father, one for the mother and her youngest—a boy of seven—and one for the remaining two children. “Shall we begin with ‘Were You There?’” she enquired, addressing her husband meekly. He smiled and nodded his assent.

The sound of the small choir was frail and rough, but it captured the attention of many a passer-by. This was partially due to the inherent qualities of massed human voices, and partially to the sheer pathos of the spectacle: the poor, malnourished-looking family, arranged like some public exhibit, provoked all manner of reactions, from sympathy to disgust. For those inclined to stop and observe for a while, it also presented an engrossing psychological study: the father, tired and battered in appearance, his singing hoarse and tuneless; the mother, equally ragged in dress but tidier somehow, more composed, her voice shrill but strong. The children seemed mostly vacant, their minds idling while their bodies worked over-familiar routines, with the exception of the second eldest, a boy of twelve; he alone seemed acutely uncomfortable, hunched over, his eyes always on the music in front of him, and his free arm wrapped around his waist. Most of the voices were weak, but his was the only one that was completely inaudible. “Were you there when He rose up from the dead?” intoned the chorus, and though the boy's lips moved in correspondence with the words, there could be no doubt that his thoughts and feelings observed some different rhythm, at once private and universal. The watchers recognised it at once, it was the rhythm of a silent, desperate prayer.

13 September, 2009

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

The size of the city means how refreshing the evening is can go either way. Tonight you should have water available, air providing none of the coolness.

What is refreshing, and I’m not the only one who thinks so, is the family singing hymns. I watch them longer than anyone else, most people trying hard to not stop moving near them. Even I’m thinking of excuses why I can’t stay with them for dinner. Something in their house, maybe one of the kids, would bite me.

Mostly I’m watching the mother. She’s a mother who’d take care of you. But the father doesn’t look above kidnap.

The eldest two kids are definite kidnap victims. It’s too late for the girl; she’s playing the organ for fuck’s sake, but I could save the boy, raise him like a brother, exist almost in secret, taking it easy. He would love that, I can tell by the way he doesn't look at me or his parents.

But, because I think serial killers probably also think like this, I walk away.