"One of the most gifted novelists of his generation." —Time
"Amis is a force unto himself... . There is, quite simply, no one else like him." —Washington Post Book World
"Martin Amis is a stone-solid genius ... a dazzling star of wit and insight." —Wall Street Journal
"Amis is a born comic novelist, in the tradition that ranges from Dickens to Waugh... . [His] mercurial style can rise to
Joycean brilliance." —Newsweek
"Amis is a clever, skillful writer." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Amis throws off more provocative ideas and images in a single paragraph than most writers get into complete novels."
"[Amis's] language is demonically alive." —The New York Times Book Review
"Mr. Amis has reached such a level of superstardom that his author's bio can understate: 'Martin Amis lives in London.'"
MARTIN AMISTHE INFORMATION
Martin Amis's books include Money, Dead Babies, The Rachel Papers,
The Moronic Inferno, Einstein's Monsters, London Fields, Time's Arrow,
and Visiting Mrs. Nabokov. He lives in London.
MARTIN AMISVintage International
A Division of Random House, Inc. New YorkTo Louis and jacob
and to the memory of
PART ONE Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that... Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women—and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses—will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, "What is it?" And the men say, "Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams."
Just sad dreams. Yeah: oh sure. Just sad dreams. Or something like that.
Richard Tull was crying in his sleep. The woman beside him, his wife, Gina, woke and turned. She moved up on him from behind and laid hands on his pale and straining shoulders. There was a professionalism in her blinks and frowns and whispers: like the person at the pool-side, trained in first aid; like the figure surging in on the blood-smeared macadam, a striding Christ of mouth-to-mouth. She was a woman. She knew so much more about tears than he did. She didn't know about Swift's juvenilia, or Wordsworth's senilia, or how Cressida had variously fared at the hands of Boccaccio, of Chaucer, of Robert Henryson, of Shakespeare; she didn't know Proust. But she knew tears. Gina had tears cold.
"What is it? "she said.
Richard raised a bent arm to his brow. The sniff he gave was complicated, orchestral. And when he sighed you could hear the distant seagulls
falling through his lungs.
"Nothing. It isn't anything. Just sad dreams." Or something like that. After a while she too sighed and turned over, away from him. There in the night their bed had the towelly smell of marriage.
He awoke at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed. Richard Tull felt tired, and not just under-slept. Local tiredness was up there above him—the kind of tiredness that sleep might lighten—but there was something else up there over and above it. And beneath it. That greater tiredness was not so local. It was the tiredness of time lived, with its days and days. It was the tiredness of gravity—gravity, which wants you down there in the center of the earth. That greater tiredness was here to stay: and get heavier. No nap or cuppa would ever lighten it. Richard couldn't remember crying in the night. Now his eyes were dry and open. He was in a terrible state—that of consciousness. Some while ago in his life he had lost the knack of choosing what to think about. He slid out of bed in the mornings just to find some peace. He slid out of bed in the mornings just to get a little rest. He was forty tomorrow, and reviewed books.
In the small square kitchen, which stoically awaited him, Richard engaged the electric kettle. Then he went next door and looked in on the boys. Dawn visits to their room had been known to comfort him after nights such as the one he had just experienced, with all its unwelcome information. His twin sons in their twin beds. Marius and Marcus were not identical twins. And they weren't fraternal twins either, Richard often said (unfairly, perhaps), in the sense that they showed little brotherly feeling. But that's all they were, brothers, born at the same time. It was possible, theoretically (and, Richard surmised, their mother being Gina, also practically) that Marcus and Marius had different fathers. They didn't look alike, especially, and were strikingly dissimilar in all their talents and proclivities. Not even their birthdays were content to be identical: a sanguinary summer midnight had interposed itself between the two boys and their (again) very distinctive parturitional styles, Marius, the elder, subjecting the delivery room to a systematic and intelligent stare, its negative judgment suspended by decency and disgust, whereas Marcus just clucked and sighed to himself complacently, and seemed to pat himself down, as if after a successful journey through freak weather. Now in the dawn, through the window and through the rain, the streets of London looked like the insides of an old plug. Richard contemplated his sons, their motive bodies reluctantly arrested in sleep, and reef-knotted to their bedware, and he thought, as an artist might: but the young sleep in another country, at once verydangerous and out of harm's way, perennially humid with innocuous libido—there are neutral eagles out on the windowsill, waiting, offering protection and threat.
Sometimes Richard did think and feel like an artist. He was an artist when he saw fire, even a match head (he was in his study now, lighting his first cigarette): an instinct in him acknowledged its elemental status. He was an artist when he saw society: it never crossed his mind that society had to be like this, had any right, had any business being like this. A car in the street. Why? Why cars'? This is what an artist has to be: harassed to the point of insanity or stupefaction by first principles. The difficulty began when he sat down to write. The difficulty, really, began even earlier. Richard looked at his watch and thought: I can't call him yet. Or rather: Can't call him yet. For the interior monologue now waives the initial personal pronoun, in deference to Joyce. He'll still be in bed, not like the boys and their abandonment, but lying there person-ably, and smugly sleeping. For him, either there would be no information, or the information, such as it was, would all be good.
For an hour (it was the new system) he worked on his latest novel, deliberately but provisionally entitled Untitled. Richard Tull wasn't much of a hero. Yet there was something heroic about this early hour of flinching, flickering labor, the pencil sharpener, the Wite-Out, the vines outside the open window sallowing not with autumn but with nicotine. In the drawers of his desk or interleaved by now with the bills and summonses on the lower shelves on his bookcases, and even on the floor of the car (the terrible red Maestro), swilling around among the Ribena cartons and the dead tennis balls, lay other novels, all of them firmly entitled Unpublished. And stacked against him in the future, he knew, were yet further novels, successively entitled Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, and, eventually, Unconcerned.
Now came the boys—in what you would call a flurry if it didn't go on so long and involve so much inanely grooved detail, with Richard like the venerable though tacitly alcoholic pilot in the cockpit of the frayed shuttle: his clipboard, his nine-page checklist, his revving hangover—socks, sums, cereal, reading book, shaved carrot, face wash, teeth brush. Gina appeared in the middle of this and drank a cup of tea standing by the sink . . . Though the children were of course partly
mysterious to Richard, thank God, he knew their childish repertoire
and he knew the flavor of their hidden lives. But Gina he knew less and less about. Little Marco, for instance, believed that the sea was thecreation of a rabbit who lived in a racing car. This you could discuss. Richard didn't know what Gina believed. He knew less and less about her private cosmogony.
There she stood, in light lipstick and light pancake and light woolen suit, holding her teacup in joined palms. Other working girls whose beds Richard had shared used to get up at around eleven at night to interface themselves for the other world. Gina did it all in twenty minutes. Her body threw no difficulties in her way: the wash-and-go drip-dry hair, the candid orbits that needed only the mildest of emphasis, the salmony tongue, the ten-second bowel movement, the body that all clothes loved. Gina worked two days a week, sometimes three. What she did, in public relations, seemed to him much more mysterious than what he did, or failed to do, in the study next door. Like the sun, now, her face forbade any direct address of the eyes, though of course the sun glares crazily everywhere at once and doesn't mind who is looking at it. Richard's dressing gown bent round him as he fastened Marius's shirt buttons with his eaten fingertips.
"Can you fasten it?" said Marius.
"Do you want a cup of tea making?" said Gina, surprisingly.
"Knock knock," said Marco.
Richard said, in order, "I am fastening it. No thanks, I'm okay. Who's there?"
"You," said Marco.
"No, fasten it. Come on, Daddy!" said Marius.
Richard said, "You who? You don't mean fasten it. You mean do it faster. I'm trying."
"Are they ready?" said Gina.
"Who are you calling! Knock knock," said Marco.
"I think so. Who's there?"
"What about macks?"
"They don't need macks, do they?"
"Mine aren't going out in that without macks."
"Boo," said Marco.
"Are you taking them in?"
"Boo who? Yeah, I thought so."
"Why are you crying!"
"Look at you. You aren't even dressed yet."
"I'll get dressed now."
"Why are you crying!"
"It's ten to nine. I'll take them.” "No, I'll take them."
"Daddy! Why are you crying?"
"What? I'm not."
"In the night you were," said Gina.
"Was I?" said Richard.
Still in his dressing gown, and barefoot, Richard followed his family out into the passage and down the four flights of stairs. They soon out-speeded him. By the time he rounded the final half-landing the front door was opening—was closing—and with a whip of its tail the flurry of their life had gone.
Richard picked up his Times and his low-quality mail (so brown, so unwelcome, so slowly moving through the city). He sifted and then thrashed his way into the newspaper until he found Today's Birthdays. There it stood. There was even a picture of him, cheek to cheek with his wife: Lady Demeter.
At eleven o'clock Richard Tull dialed the number. He felt the hastening of excitement when Gwyn Barry himself picked up the telephone.
Richard exhaled and said measuredly, "... You fucking old wreck."
Gwyn paused. Then the elements came together in his laugh, which was gradual and indulgent and even quite genuine. "Richard," he said.
"Don't laugh like that. You'll pull a muscle. You'll break your neck. Forty years old. I saw your obit in The Times."
"Listen, are you coming to this thing?"
"I am, but I don't think you'd better. Sit tight, by the fire. With a rug on your lap. And an old-boy pill with your hot drink."
"Yes, all right. Enough," said Gwyn. "Are you coming to this thing?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. Why don't I come to you around twelve-thirty and we'll get a cab."
"You fucking old wreck."
Richard sobbed briefly and then paid a long and consternated visit to the bathroom mirror. His mind was his own and he accepted full responsibility for it, whatever it did or might do. But his body. The rest of the morning he spent backing his way into the first sentence of a seven-hundred-word piece about a seven-hundred-page book about Warwick Deeping. Like the twins, Richard and Gwyn Barry were Only a day apart in time. Richard would be forty tomorrow. The information would not be carried by The Times: The Times, the newspaper of record. Only one celebrity lived at 49E Calchalk Street; and she wasn't famous. Gina was agenetic celebrity. She was beautiful, every inch, and she didn't change. She got older, but she didn't change. In the gallery of the old photographs she was always the same, staring out, while everyone else seemed disgracefully, protean, kaftaned Messiahs, sideburned Zapatas. He sometimes wished she wasn't: wasn't beautiful. In his present travail. Her brother and sister were ordinary. Her dead dad had been ordinary. Her mother was still around for the time being, fat and falling apart and still mountainously pretty somehow, in a bed somewhere.
We are agreed—come on: we are agreed—about beauty in the flesh. Consensus is possible here. And in the mathematics of the universe, beauty helps tell us whether things are false or true. We can quickly agree about beauty, in the heavens and in the flesh. But not everywhere. Not, for instance, on the page.
In the van, Scozzy looked at 13 and said,
"Morrie goes to the doctor, right?"
"Right," said 13.
13 was eighteen and he was black. His real name was Bendy. Scozzy was thirty-one, and he was white. His real name was Steve Cousins.
Scozzy said, "Morrie tells the doc, he says, 'I can't raise it with my wife. My wife Queenie. I can't raise it with Queenie.' "
Hearing this, 13 did something that white people have stopped really doing. He grinned. White people used to do it, years ago. "Yeah," said 13 expectantly. Morrie, Queenie, he thought: all Jews is it.
Scozzy said, "The doc goes, 'Unlucky. Listen. We got these pills in from Sweden. The latest gear. Not cheap. Like a carpet a pill. Okay?' "
13 nodded. "Or whatever," he said.
They were sitting in the orange van, drinking cans of Ting: pineapple-grapefruit crush. 13's fat dog Giro sat erectly between them on the handbrake section, keeping still but panting as if in great lust.
' 'Take one of them and you'll have a stiffy for four hours. A bonk with a capital O.' Morrie goes home, right?" Scozzy paused and then said thoughtfully, "Morrie rings up the doc and he's like, 'I just took one of them pills but guess what.' "
13 turned and frowned at Scozzy.
" 'Queenie's gone shopping! Won't be back for four hours!' The doc says, 'This is serious, mate. Is there anybody else indoors?' Morrie says,
'Yeah, The au pair,' The doc says, 'What she like?' 'Eighteen with big
tits.' So the doc goes, 'Okay. Stay calm. You'll have to do it with the au pair. Tell her it's an emergency. Medical matter.' " "Medical matter whatever," murmured 13. " 'Ooh I don't know,' says Morrie. 'I mean a carpet a pill? Seems like an awful waste. I can get a stiffy with the au pair anyway.' "
There was silence.
Giro gulped and started panting again.
13 leaned back in his seat. Grin and frown now contested for the suzerainty of his face. The grin won. "Yeah," said 13. "Do it on the carpet is it."
".. . What fucking carpet?"
"You said carpet."
"Pill on the carpet."
"Jesus Christ," said Scozzy. "The pills cost a carpet. Each."
13 looked mildly unhappy. A mere nothing. It would pass.
"A carpet. Jesus. You know: half a stretch."
Nothing—a mere nothing.
"Fucking hell. A stretch is six months. A carpet is half a stretch. Three hundred quid."
It had passed. 13 grinned weakly.
Scozzy said, "You're the one who's always in fucking prison."
With fright-movie suddenness (Giro stopped panting) Richard Tull appeared in the left foreground of the van's glass screen and fixed them with a wince before reeling on by. Giro gulped, and started panting again.
"Woe," said Scozzy.
"The man," 13 said simply.
"He's not the man. The man's the other one. He's his mate." Scozzy nodded and smiled and shook his head with all these things coming together: he loved it. "And Crash does his wife."
"The man," said 13. "Of TV fame." 13 frowned, and added, "I never seen him on the telly."
Steve Cousins said, "You just watch fucking Sky."
Richard rang the bell on Holland Park and, momentarily haggard in his bow tie, presented himself to the security camera—which jerked round affrontedly at him in its compact gantry above the door. He also made mental preparations. The state Richard sought was one of disparity readiness. And he never found it. Gwyn's setup always flattened him. He was like the chinless cadet in the nuclear submarine, small-talking with
one of the guys as he untwirled the bolt (routine check) on the torpedo
bay—and was instantly floored by a frothing phallus of seawater. Deep down out there, with many atmospheres. The pressure of all that Gwyn had. To take a heftily looming instance, the house itself. Its mass and scope, its particular reach and sweep he knew well: for a year he had gone to school in an identical building across the street. The school, a cosmopolitan crammer, which was dead now, like Richard's father, who had scrimped to send him there, used to accommodate a staff of twenty-five and over two hundred pupils—an ecology of estrogen and testosterone, bumfluff, flares, fights, fancyings, first loves. That tiered rotating world was vanished. But now in a place of the same measurements, the same volume, lived Gwyn and Demeter Barry. Oh yeah. And the help .. . Richard moved his head around as if to relieve neck pain. The camera continued to stare at him incredulously. He tried to stare back at it, with mad pride. Richard wasn't guilty of covetousness, funnily enough. In the shops he seldom saw anything that looked much fan to buy. He liked the space but he didn't want the stuff you put in it. Still, everything had been so much nicer, he thought, in the old days, when Gwyn was poor.
Allowed entry, Richard was shown upstairs, not of course by Demeter (who at this hour would be unguessably elsewhere down the great passages), nor by a maid (though there were maids, called things like Ming and Atrocia, shipped here in crates from Sao Paolo, from Vientiane), nor by any representative of the home-improvement community (and they were always about, the knighted architect, the overalled stiff with a mouthful of nails): Richard was shown upstairs by a new type of auxiliary, an American coed or sophomore or grad student, whose straightness of hair, whose strictness of mouth, whose brown-eyed and black-browed intelligence was saying that whatever else Gwyn might be he was now an operation, all fax and Xerox and preselect. In the hall Richard saw beneath the broad mirror a shelf so infested with cardboard or even plywood invitations ... He thought of the van outside, a month of tabloids wedged between dash and windscreen. And the two guys within, one white, one black, and the fat German Shepherd, more like a bear than a dog, with its scarf of tongue.
Gwyn Barry was nearing the climax of a combined interview and photo session. Richard entered the room and crossed it in a diagonal with one hand effacingly raised, and sat on a stool, and picked up a magazine. Gwyn was on the window seat, in his archaeologist's suit, also with archaeologist's aura of outdoor living, rugged inquiry, suntan. He
filled his small lineaments neatly, just as his hair filled the lineaments
(only a rumor, for now) of male-pattern recession. Gwyn's hair was actually gray, but bright gray: not the English gray of eelskin and wet slates; nor yet the gray that comes about through tiredness of pigment,and dryness. Bright gray hair—the hair (Richard thought) of an obvious charlatan. Richard himself, by the way, was going bald too, but anarchi-cally. No steady shrinkage, with the flesh stealing crownwards like rising water; with him, hair loss happened in spasms, in hanks and handfuls. Visits to the barber were now as fearful and apparently hopeless as visits to the bank manager, or the agent—or the garage, in the tomato-red Maestro.
"Have you any thoughts," the interviewer was saying, "on turning forty?"
"Happy birthday," said Richard.
"Thanks. It's just a number," said Gwyn. "Like any other."
The room—Gwyn's study, his library, his lab—was very bad. When in this room it was Richard's policy to stare like a hypnotist into Gwyn's greedy green eyes, for fear of what he might otherwise confront. He didn't really mind the furniture, the remoteness of the ceiling, the good proportion of the three front windows. He really didn't mind the central space-platform of floppy discs and X-ray lasers. What he minded were Gwyn's books: Gwyn's books, which multiplied or ramified so crazily now. Look on the desk, look on the table, and what do you find? The lambent horror of Gwyn in Spanish (sashed with quotes and reprint updates) or an American book-club or supermarket paperback, or something in Hebrew or Mandarin or cuneiform or pictogram that seemed blameless enough but had no reason to be there if it wasn't one of Gwyn's. And then Gallimard and Mondadori and Livro Aberto and Zsolnay and Uitgeverij Contact and Kawade Shobo and Magveto Konyvkiado. In the past Richard had enjoyed several opportunities to snoop around Gwyn's study—his desk, his papers. Are snoopers snooping on their own pain? Probably. I expect you get many young girls who. You will be delighted to hear that the air tickets will be. The judges reached their decision in less than. These terms are, we feel, exceptionally. I am beginning to be translating your. Here is a photograph of the inside of my. Richard stopped flipping through the magazine on his lap (he had come to an interview with Gwyn Barry), and stood, and surveyed the bookshelves. They were fiercely alphabetized. Richard's bookshelves weren't alphabetized. He never had time to alphabetize them. He was always too busy—looking for books he couldn't find. He had books heaped under tables, under beds. Books heaped on windowsills so they dosed out the sky.
Interviewer and interviewee were winding up some guff about the deceptive simplicity of the interviewee's prose style. Unlike the interviewer, the photographer was a woman, a girl, black-clad, Nordic,leggy—how she crouched and teetered for her images of Gwyn! Richard looked on with a frowsy sigh. Being photographed, as an activity, was in itself clearly not worth envying. What was enviable, and unbelievable, was that Gwyn should be worth photographing. What happened inside the much-photographed face—what happened to the head within? The Yanomano or the Ukuki were surely onto something. One shot wouldn't do it, but the constant snatch of the camera's mouth—it would take your reality, in the end. Yes, probably, the more you were photographed, the thinner it went for your inner life. Being photographed was dead time for the soul. Can the head think, while it does the same half smile under the same light frown? If this was all true, then Richard's soul was in great shape. No one photographed him anymore, not even Gina. When the photographs came back from the chemist's, after an increasingly infrequent Tull holiday, Richard was never there: Marius, Marco, Gina, some peasant or lifeguard or donkey—and Richard's elbow or earlobe on the edge of the frame, on the edge of life and love .. . Now the interviewer said, "A lot of people think that, because you're the figure you now are, that the next step is politics. What do you . .. Do you ... ?"
"Politics," said Gwyn. "Gosh. Well I can't say I've given it that much thought. Thus far. Let's say I wouldn't want to rule it out. As yet." "You sound like a politician already, Gwyn."
This was Richard. The remark went down well—because, as is often pointed out, we are all of us in need of a good laugh. Or any kind of laugh at all. The need is evidently desperate. Richard dropped his head and turned away. No, that really wasn't the kind of thing he wanted to be saying. Ever. But Gwyn's world was partly public. And Richard's world was dangerously and increasingly private. And some of us are slaves in our own lives.
"I think writing'll do me," said Gwyn. "They're not incompatible, though, are they? Novelist and politician are both concerned with human potential."
"This would be Labour, of course." "Obviously." "Of course." "Of course."
Of course, thought Richard. Yeah: of course Gwyn was Labour. It was obvious. Obvious not from the ripply cornices twenty feet above their
heads, not from the brass lamps or the military plumpness of the leather-topped desk. Obvious because Gwyn was what he was, a writer, in England, at the end of the twentieth century. There was nothing else for such a person to be. Richard was Labour, equally obviously. It oftenseemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour, except the government. Gwyn was the son of a Welsh schoolteacher (his subject? Gym. He taught gym). Now he was middle class and Labour. Richard was the son of a son of a Home Counties landowner. Now he was middle class and Labour. All writers, all book people, were Labour, which was one of the reasons why they got on so well, why they didn't keep suing each other and beating each other up. Not like America, where spavined Alabaman must mingle with Virginian nabob, where tormented Lithuanian must extend his hand to the seven-foot Cape Codder with those true-blue eyes. By the way, Richard didn't mind Gwyn being rich and Labour. Richard didn't mind Gwyn being rich. It was important to establish the nature of the antipathy (to free it from distractions), before everything gets really awful, all ripped and torn. He made me hit my kid, thought Richard. He made me—with my wife .,. Rich and Labour: that was okay. Having always been poor was a good preparation for being rich. Better than having always been rich. Let the socialist drink champagne. At least he was new to it. Anyway, who cared? Richard had even been a member of the Communist Party, in his early twenties—for all the fucking good that did him.
"Thank you very much," said the interviewer, in a tone of mild surprise. For a moment he hesitated and stared desolately at his tape recorder, but then nodded and got to his feet. Now the photographer's presence started to gather and expand—her height, her health.
"If I could just have three minutes over in the corner there."
"I don't pose," said Gwyn. "The deal was you snap away while we talked. But no posing."
"Three minutes. Please. Two minutes. The light's so perfect there."
Gwyn acquiesced. He acquiesced, Richard thought, in the manner of someone who had similarly acquiesced many times before, conscious both of his magnanimity and of its limits. The well and all its sweet water would surely one day run dry.
"Who's coming to this thing?" Gwyn called, from beyond, as the photographer's trussed and pouch-swathed figure interposed itself between the two men.
"Not sure." Richard named some names. "Thanks for coming along. On your birthday and everything."
But now without turning to him the photographer with frantic fingers
was making quelling gestures behind her back and saying,
"Good: I'm getting something. I'm getting something. Higher. Stay. That's very good. That's very good. That's beautiful.” On the way out they encountered Lady Demeter Barry in the hall. She was twenty-nine, and had the abstracted and disorganized air you might expect from somebody who was related to the Queen. Like Gina Tull, she had no connection with literature other than marriage to one of its supposed practitioners.
"Got a lesson, love?" said Gwyn, moving up close.
Richard waited. "My dear Demi," he then said, giving a brief stiff bow before kissing her on either cheek.
The orange van was still out there—the soiled orange van, with its soiled white trim, and its soiled cream curtains fringing the windows side and back. Steve Cousins sat there, alone but for Giro, having sent 13 off for more Tings.
A monkey. A pony. Cockle and hen: ten. Why the animal imagery for proletarian money? Lady Godiva: fiver. Then the back slang. Rouf, nevis: sounds stupid. A carpet stood for three (and its multiples). And six was half a stretch, and a stretch was twelve, and a double carpet was thirty-three, and sixty-six was a ... Jesus. That was type talk, and prison talk, and you shouldn't use it. And Steve had never gone to prison. He had never gone to prison, being (as many lawyers on many occasions had wearily reminded many courtrooms) of stainless record ... At this juncture Steve was reading a magazine called Police Review but he also had a book on the dash: Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti. Funnily enough, in Steve's circle (and Steve's circle was elliptical and eccentric), reading books like Crowds and Power was tantamount to a proclamation that you had gone to prison—and for a very long time. Beware the convict with his Camus and his Kierkegaard, his Critique of Pure Reason, his Four Quartets...
Steve. Steve Cousins. Scozz.
Scozz? Scozz had dyed hair, worn spiky—the color of syrup or even treacle; but the roots were black (sedimentary dye from a slightly earlier phase). His hair resembled damp ripe hay that had undergone reckless chemical enrichment. Where the colors merged they looked like the creases between a smoker's teeth. Scozzy didn't smoke. You don't smoke: what you do is stay fit and healthy. His face was long, despite the absence of chin (his chin was about the same size as the Adam's apple on which it perched); and in certain lights his features seemed to consist of shifting planes and lenses, like a suspect's face "pixelated" for the TV screen: smeared, and done in squares; blurred, and done in boxes. Scozzy wore two wire-thin silver rings in either ear. His pre-violence stare featured the usual bulged eyes—but the lips also widened and parted in avidity and amusement and recognition. Not tall, not stocky: he surprised peo-pie when he took off his shirt, revealing himself like an anatomical demonstration. He excelled at surprise. In fights and frightenings, the surprise was always inordinate. Because Steve didn't stop. When I start, I don't stop. I don't stop. He was the kind of criminal who knew what recidivist meant. He was good. He had the ism.
Unsmilingly Scozzy rotated his neck muscles as 13 slid the door open and climbed back inside. Giro, lying further back now in his huge fur coat, sighed hotly in sleep.
13 said, "He come out?"
"Both did. Hopped in a cab. Account."
"Size of that racking gaff."
Scozzy turned to him, and exhaled, and said indulgently, "Oh, Thirt. Thirt, mate. What do you think we're here for? Think we come to screw it? Run round the house nicking stuff and fucking everything up?"
13 smiled with lowered head. He had had something of the sort in mind.
"Get a life. Get a century."
"The wife," said Scozzy, with conviction. "Off to her lesson."
"Big girl," said 13. "Yat," he added, with admiration.
Yeah: Lady Demeter certainly looked like a brother's dream pull: blonde, rich, stacked. But she wasn't Steve's type. No human woman was. No, nor man, neither.
13 reached for the ignition and looked up expectantly but Steve's slow blink was enough to tell him they were going nowhere for now. With Scozzy, you were always doing much less than you thought you'd be doing. Much less, then much more.
"Crash said she was a big girl."
Steve spoke neutrally. Come to think of it: "The Queen's got big tits. Oi. These ain't Tings. They Lilts!"
"Pineapple-grapefruit crush," said 13 petulantly. "Jesus. Same difference."
An hour into lunch in this fish restaurant for rich old men and something extraordinary was about to happen. Nothing from the outside
world. It was just that Richard was on the verge of passionate speech.
Yes: passionate speech.
You don't think that's extraordinary? Oh, but it is. Try and think of the last time you did it. And I don't just mean "Well I think it'sabsolutely disgraceful" or "You're the one who brought it up in the first place" or "Get straight back into your room and get into bed." I'm talking speech: passionate speech. Speeches hardly ever happen. We hardly ever give them or hear them. See how bad we are at it. "Marius! Marco! The pair of you—are a pair!" See how we fuck it up. We salivate and iterate. Women can do it, or they get further, but when the chance of tears presents itself they usually take it. Not having this option, men just shut up. They are all esprit d'escalier. Men are spirits on the staircase, wishing they'd said, wishing they'd said ... Before he spoke, there in the buttoned plush, Richard hurriedly wondered whether this had been a natural resource of men and women—passionate speech—before 1700 or whenever Eliot said it was, before thought and feeling got dissociated.The sensibility of men was evidently much more dissociated than the sensibility of women. Maybe, for women, it just never happened. Compared to men, women were Metaphysicals, Bonnes and Marvells of brain and heart.
So, his passionate speech. Passionate speech, which unrolls, with thoughts and feelings dramatized in words. Passionate speech, which is almost always a bad move.
How can we explain this' After all, Richard was here to impress people. He wanted a job.
Was it the place? A semicircular banquette, full of food and drink and smoke—and, beyond, little bunkers full of old men patiently jawing their way through the money extorted by their forebears?
Was it the company? Financier, male columnist, female columnist, publisher, newspaper diarist, newspaper profilist, photographer, captain of industry, Shadow Minister for the Arts, Gwyn Barry?
Was it the alcohol provided and consumed? Actually Richard had been very good, managing to get through a Virgin Mary and a lite beer before his pre-lunch whisky. Then a ton of wine. But before that, while everyone was still milling around, he had gone to the pub across the road with Rory Plantagenet—the newspaper diarist. Richard and Rory sometimes described one another as schoolfriends, which is to say that they had been at the same school at the same time. The school was Ridding-ton House—well known to be the least good public school in the British Isles. For some years now Richard had been selling Rory literary gossip. How much that advance had been. Who would win that prize. Occasionally, and more and more often, he sold him gossip about literary
for the information, and always for all the drinks, as a kind of tip. He paid for the gen and the gin, the shrugs, the cheap jokes. Richard didn't like doing this. But he needed the money. While he did it, he felt as if hewas wearing a cheap new shirt—one from which he had failed to remove the packager's pins.
Was it the provocation? The provocation, some might think, turned out to be considerable. It was sufficient, in any case.
London weather was also bound to play its part: a hot noon gloom. Like night falling on the interior of the church, the lunchers hovered and gathered ...
Gwyn Barry had his photograph taken. The financier—Sebby—had his photograph taken. Gwyn Barry was photographed with the financier. The publisher was photographed with Gwyn Barry and the captain of industry. The captain of industry was photographed with the Shadow Minister of the Arts and Gwyn Barry. Two speeches were given, read from pieces of paper—neither of them passionate. The captain of industry, whose wife was interested in literature more than enough for both of them (Gwyn often dined there, Richard knew), gave a speech in praise of Gwyn Barry on this, his fortieth birthday. That took about ninety seconds. Then the financier gave a speech during which Richard smoked three cigarettes and stared tearfully at his empty glass. So the financier was trying to get something back for his money. It wasn't just going to be a free meal with a bit of slurred shop over coffee. The financier spoke about the kind of literary magazine he would like to be associated with— the kind of magazine he was prepared to be the financier of. Not so much like magazine A. Not so much like magazine B. More like magazine C (defunct) or magazine D (published in New York). Gwyn Barry was then asked about the kind of magazine he would like to be associated with (the kind that had high standards). Ditto the captain of industry, the Shadow Minister for the Arts, the female columnist, the male columnist. Rory Plantagenet was not consulted. Neither was the photographer, who was leaving anyway. Neither, depressingly, was Richard Tull, who was struggling to remain under the impression that he was being groomed for the editorship. The only questions that came his way were about technical matters—print runs, break-even junctures, and the like.
Would there be any point, the financier, Sebby, was saying (and his public popularity owed a great deal to this bandied diminutive: never mind, for now, all the fellow sharks and vultures he had left shivering over their visual display units), would there be any point in getting some market research under way? Richard?
"What, reader profile stuff?" He had no idea what to say. He said, "Age? Sex? I don't know."
"I thought we might press a questionnaire on, say... students reading English at London? Something of that kind?” "To see if they like high standards?"
"Targeting," said the male columnist, who was about twenty-eight and experimentally bearded, with a school-dinner look about him. The column the male columnist wrote was sociopolitical. "Come on, this isn't America. Where the magazine market is completely balkanized. Where, you know, they have magazines," he said, already looking round the table to garner any smiles that might soon be cropping up, "for the twice-divorced South Moluccan scuba diver."
"Still, there are more predictable preferences," said the publisher. "Women's magazines are read by women. And men ..."
There was a silence. To fill it, Richard said, "Has anyone ever really established whether men prefer to read men? Whether women prefer to read women?"
"Oh please. What is this?" said the female columnist. "We're not talking about motorbikes or knitting patterns. We're talking about literature for God's sake."
Even when he was in familiar company (his immediate family, for instance) it sometimes seemed to Richard that those gathered in the room were not quite authentic selves—that they had gone away and then come back not quite right, half remade or reborn by some blasphemous, backhanded, and above all inexpensive process. In a circus, in a funhouse. All flaky and carny. Not quite themselves. Himself very much included.
He said, "Is this without interest? Nabokov said he was frankly homosexual in his literary tastes. I don't think men and women write and read in exactly the same way. They go at it differently."
"And I suppose," she said, "that there are racial differences too?"
He didn't answer. For a moment Richard looked worryingly short-necked. He was in fact coping with a digestive matter, or at least he was sitting tight until the digestive matter resolved itself one way or the other.
"I can't believe I'm hearing this. I thought we came here today to talk about an. What's the matter with you? Are you drunk?"
Richard turned his senses on her. The woman: gruff, sizable, stalely handsome; and always barging through to her share of the truth. Richard knew the type—because literature knew the type. Like the smug boiler in the Pritchett story, the Labour politician, up North, proud of her brusqueness and her good big bum. The column the female columnist wrote wasn't specifically about being a woman. But the photograph above it somehow needed to have long hair and makeup—for it all to hang together.
The Shadow Minister for the Arts said, "Isn't this what literature is meant to be about? Transcending human difference?” "Hear hear," said the female columnist. "Me? I don't give a damn whether people are male, female, black, white, pink, puce or polka-dotted."
"And that's why you're no good."
"Steady there," said Sebby. And then he added, as if the very appellation refreshed him: "Gwyn."
Everyone turned to him in silence. Gwyn was staring at his coffee spoon with a fascinated frown. He replaced it in its saucer and looked up, his face clearing, his green eyes brightening.
Gwyn said slowly, "I find I never think in terms of men. In terms of women. I find I always think in terms of...people."
There was an immediate burble of approbation: Gwyn, it seemed, had douched the entire company in common sense and plain humanity. Richard had to raise his voice, which meant that his cough kicked in— but he went ahead with his passionate speech.
It was the little rapt pause before the word people: that was what did it.
"A very low-level remark, if I may say so. Hey, Gwyn. You know what you remind me of. A quiz in a color magazine—you know, Are You Cut Out To Be a Teacher? Final question: Would you rather teach (a) history, or (b) geography, or (c) . . . children. Well, you don't get a choice about teaching children. But there is a choice, and a difference, between history and geography. It must make you feel nice and young to say that being a man means nothing and being a woman means nothing and what matters is being a ...person. How about being a spider, Gwyn. Let's imagine you're a spider. You're a spider, and you've just had your first serious date. You're limping away from that now, and you're looking over your shoulder, and there's your girlfriend, eating one of your legs like it was a chicken drumstick. What would you say? I know. You'd say: I find I never think in terms of male spiders or in terms of female spiders. I find I always think in terms of... spiders."
Richard sank back, rhythmically sighing or whinnying with all that this had cost him. He didn't have the will to look up, to look up into that unanimity of downward revision. So he stared at the tarnished tablecloth, and saw only the rising—no, the plunging—seahorses that lived behind his eyes.
That evening it was six o'clock by the time Richard got back to Calchalk Street. As he entered (the front door led straight into the sitting room), a crabbed, metallic voice was saying something like,
"Sinister cannot now be opposed in the completion of his evil plan. Our only hope is to confront Terrortron.” The twins did not look up from the television. Neither did Lizzete, the muscular but very young black girl who collected them from school on Gina's workdays and then watched television with them until Richard returned, or staggered out of his study. She herself wore a school uniform. Lizzete's new boyfriend, on the other hand, got busily to his feet and nodded repeatedly and with his gym-shoed foot tapped Lizzete's muscular calf until she introduced him as Teen or Tine. Short for Tino? Itself short for Martino, Valentino? A well-sprung youth with a core of softness in the kind of black face that would become finely lined rather than sleekly smooth in early middle age. Richard was gratified that his children felt at ease with and even envied black people. When he had met his first black person, the six-year-old Richard, despite much prep-ping and coaching and bribing, had burst into tears.
Side by side on the sofa, with that low, committed gaze, Marius and Marco went on looking at the television, where great slanting hulking cartoon robots fluidly transformed themselves into planes and cars and rockets, like icons in a new socialism of machines.
"Sinister, prepare to meet your doom. Do not think that Hor-rortroid's cohorts can avail you now."
Richard said, "Who christens these characters? How did Hor-rortroid's parents know he was going to be horrible? How did Sinistor's parents know Sinister was going to be sinister?"
"They make up their own names, Daddy," said Marius.
Now Gina was coming through the door, in her suit, in her street pancake. The boys glanced up, and glanced at each other; the room prepared itself for the transfer of power. Richard, with his bow tie askew, was staring at his wife with unusual attention. Her eyes, set in bruised loops of darkness, like badger, like burglar; her nose, a caligulan quarter-circle; her mouth, wide but not full. He was thinking that perhaps all loved faces cover and outreach the visible spectrum—white of tooth, black of brow. Red and violet: the mouth infrared, the eyes ultraviolet. Gina, for her part, was giving Richard her standard stare: she was looking at him as if he had gone mad a long time ago.
They moved into the kitchen for a moment while Lizzete was gathering her things—her bag, her blazer. Gina said,
"Have you got five quid on you? Did you get the job?"
"No. But I have got five quid on me."
Her chest rose in its white shirt. She exhaled. "Bad luck," she said.
"He wasn't ever going to offer me the editorship. For a while it looked like he was going to offer me a job driving a van. Or selling ad space.” "What are you looking so happy about?"
Richard wanted to kiss her. But he wasn't in a position to kiss her. And had not been for some time.
"I'm him," Marius was saying, meaning some robot, the leader of the robot fraternity which stood there potently glittering behind the credits.
"No I'm him," said Marco.
"No you're him" said Marius, meaning some other robot.
"No you're him. I'm him."
"Christ," said Richard, "why can't you both be him?"
And three seconds later Marius's teeth were stuck fast in Marco's back.
Tensely followed by Lizzete, 13 strode the length of lampless Calchalk Street and hoisted himself up into the soiled orange van. He did not immediately slide the door shut after him. Indeed, a single trainer still dangled with pale allure from the brink of the dark cab.
"That's it?" said Lizzete.
13 just smiled at her.
"Look, I'll take you down the Paradox."
"They won't let you in. Thursday."
She pointed a finger at him. "Thursday," she said.
Left in peace, 13 made a move with his hand in the gloom for the last of the Lilts. He pulled off the tab and thirstily tasted the blood-heat crush. There was a book on the seat too. 13 creased his face at it: Crowds and Power. As soon as Lizzete walked away 13's face changed. From that of a cheerful and possibly quite feckless but basically decent black kid, more or less as seen on TV: to the realer face, and a look of unhappy calculation. He was glad he had seen Gina: the wife. At least it was something to tell fucking Adolf. Adolf was Scozzy. Adolf was one of the names Scozzy had that he didn't know about. Others included Psycho and Minder. We all have names we don't know about. For instance, if you have a girlfriend as well as a wife, then your girlfriend will have a name for you that you won't want to hear, a name your girlfriend uses with her girlfriends and her other boyfriends. We all have names we don't know about and don't want to hear.
Now 13 gave a puzzled sigh. He couldn't figure out what was coming down—which wasn't unusual, come to think of it, when you were working for Adolf. There was nothing there anyway apart from the video.
Scozzy was elsewhere. He wouldn't have been along at that time in the evening in any case; but Scozzy was elsewhere. With far from thebest intentions, Scozzy had gone to the hospital to visit an associate. The associate, Kirk, had been savaged, rather seriously, by his own pit bull, Beef. Beef had survived the mishap. Kirk had not had Beef put down. Beef lived on, at Kirk's brother's, Lee's, grimly awaiting Kirk's recovery and return. Forgive and forget, said Kirk. Put it behind you. Kirk argued that he had brought it on himself, plainly overreacting, there in the little kitchen, to Arsenal's embittering defeat, away goals counting double in the event of a draw, at the hands of Dynamo Kiev.
13 adjusted his demeanor to drive to St. Mary's to fetch Scozzy, and then, noticing the time, readjusted it to go home for his tea.
Shame about that. The black kid cannot just be a black kid anymore. Nobody can just be somebody anymore. Pity about that.
Take Richard. This was one of Gina's workdays, so it fell to him to do the boys. The following acts he performed selfconsciously conscientiously (or the other way round): bath, snack, book, fresh water for their jug, Marco's medicines, more book, the two dotlike fluoride pills pressed into their moist mouths, kiss. He kissed the boys as often as he could. His knowledge told him that boys should be hugged and kissed by their fathers—that what fucked men up was not being hugged and kissed by their fathers. Richard had not been hugged and kissed by his father. So he told himself to regard his relationship with his sons as purely sexual. He hugged and kissed them every chance he got. Gina did the same, but she hugged and kissed them because she physically wanted and needed to.
When the boys were done Gina came down in her nightdress and cooked him a lamb chop and ate a bowl of rustic cereal and then went to bed. While they ate, Gina read a travel brochure, in its entirety, and Richard read the first seven pages of Robert Southey: Gentleman Poet, his next book up for review.
Later, heading for his study, where he intended to drink scotch and smoke dope for a couple of hours, and examine his new destiny, he heard an italicized whisper through the half-open door of the boxroom that the boys shared (and were rapidly outgrowing): Daddy. He looked in. Marius.
"What do you want now?"
"Daddy? Daddy: what would you rather be? An Autobot or a Decep-ticon?"
Richard leaned his head against the doorjamb. The twins were being particularly knowing and apposite that night—the twins, with their subtle life, their weave of themes. Earlier in the bathroom Marco had raiseda characteristically crooked finger at a daddy-longlegs on the water pipe. A daddy-longlegs so long-legged that it was almost tripping over itself and made you think of some valiant and tragic sports day for the disabled, all the three-legged races, all the sacks, all the eggs and spoons, all the speeches so nervously prepared and kindly meant. "Daddy? Is that Spiderman?" Daddy with his long legs bent over the bath had answered, "It looks more to me like Spiderspider." ... Now Richard said to Marius,
"Autobot or Decepticon. A good question. Like many of your questions. And guess what. I think I've finally made up my mind."
"No more Autobot. All Decepticon."
Richard sat at his desk in the dark. He rolled and lit; he poured and sipped. Richard was obliged to drink heavily when he smoked dope—to fight the paranoia. To combat the incredible paranoia. On dope he sometimes thought that all the televisions of Calchalk Street were softly crackling about Richard Tull: news flashes about his most recent failures; panel discussions about his obscurity, his neglect. Now he drank and smoked and he was neither happy nor sad.
The really good bit with Gwyn had happened afterwards, in the cab. Half past three, and the light outside, the sky, was the same as the driver's tinted windscreen, the upper half all charcoal and oil, the lower leadenly glowing. Richard pulled the side window down to validate this, and of course the glass surged slowly up again, interposing its own medium. Here perhaps was the only way to see London truly, winging low over it, in a cab, in darkness-at-noon July. London traffic lights are the brightest in the world, beneath their meshed glass: the anger of their red, the jaundice of their amber, the jealousy of their green.
The profile beside him was keeping quiet so Richard said boldly, "Could you believe that woman? You know—she really thinks she's authentic. Whereas . . ." He paused. Whereas to him she had seemed horrifically otherwise. "Unmarried, I assume. She reeked of spinst."
Gwyn turned to him.
"Spinst. Spinst. Like unmarried men reek of batch."
Gwyn turned away again. He shook his head—sadly. You can't say such things. And not just for public reasons. Richard deduced (perhaps wrongly, perhaps over-elaborately) that Gwyn meant something like: You can't say such things because the whole area has been seen to be contaminated—contaminated by men who really do hate women. (Maybe he had come up with a bad example: with the spiders. People would assume he thought women were spiders. Or that he only hated •women spiders.) Anyway Richard went ahead and said,
"Great gusts of spinst. A miasma of spinst."
Gwyn waved a hand at him.
"I can describe it for you if you like. Imagine a Wembley of rain-damaged makeup. Or a—"
"Would you pull in at the corner here please?"
No, it was nothing. Gwyn was just buying an evening paper from the boy. Jesus, the light through the open door looked like the end of London, the end of everything; its guttering glow was livid now, and something you wouldn't want to touch, like the human-hued legs of pigeons beneath their dirty overcoats.
The cab resumed its endless journey, its journey of hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait. Gwyn opened his paper and turned to the Diary and eventually said,
"Well there's nothing about it here."
Richard was staring at him. "Nothing about what?"
"About the lunch. Your little outburst."
Richard stared harder. "Relieved about that, are you?"
Gwyn spoke with restraint. He said: "It's quite a while since anybody talked to me like that."
"Is it? Well this time you won't have so long to wait. Because somebody's going to talk to you like that again right away. That's the lunchtime edition. You think the guy just phones it on to the newsstands? It's lucky no one knows how fucking thick you really are. What a fucking dunce you really are. That would be a scoop."
"Nothing about the job offer, either," said Gwyn, his bright eyes still scanning the page.
"There wasn't any job offer."
"Yes there was. While you were off on one of your visits to the toilet. I turned it down of course. I mean, as if I. . ."
The cab pulled up. As Richard hunched forward he said, "One last thing. Why can't I talk about spinst?"
"Because people will start avoiding you."
Now the first drop of rain grayly kissed him on one of his bald spots as he climbed out of the cab and into the shoplit dungeon of Marylebone High Street. Richard went on up to the offices of the Tantalus Press.
Round about here, in time, the emotions lose lucidity and definition, and become qualified by something bodily. Something coarse and coarse-haired in the fury, something rancid and pulmonary in the grief, something toxic and drop-toothed in the hate . . . Richard put his thoughts in delivery order, as a writer might: stuff to be got in. And at the same time he experienced one of those uncovenanted expansions that every artist knows, when, almost audibly to the inner ear, things swivel and realign (the cube comes good), and all is clear. You don't do this: your talent does it. He sat up. His state was one of equilibrium, neither pleasant nor unpleasant in itself, but steady. He gave a sudden nod. Then and there it crystallized: the task. A literary endeavor, a quest, an exaltation—one to which he could sternly commit all his passion and his power. He was going to fuck Gwyn up.
Outside there hung the crescent moon. It looked like Punch. But where was Judy?
Fly a mile east in our weep ship to the spires of Holland Park, the aerials, the house, the layered roof, the burglar alarms, the first-floor window, thick with reflections, looming over the still garden. This is the window to the master bedroom, where the master sleeps. I'm not going in there—not yet. So I don't know what his bed smells of, and I don't know if he cries in the night.
As Richard does.
Why do the men cry? Because of fights and feats and marathon preferment, because they want their mothers, because they are blind in time, because of all the hard-ons they have to whistle up out of the thin blue yonder, because of all that men have done. Because they can't be happy or sad anymore—only smashed or nuts. And because they don't know how to do it when they're awake.
And then there is the information, which comes at night.
The next day it was his turn: Richard turned forty. Turned is right. Like a half-cooked steak, like a wired cop, like an old leaf, like milk, Richard turned. And nothing changed. He was still a wreck.
Just because he wore bright bow ties and fancy waistcoats didn't mean he wasn't falling apart. Just because he slept in paisley pajamas didn't mean he wasn't cracking up. Those bow ties and waistcoats were cratered with stains and burns. Those paisley pajamas were always drenched in sweat.
At twenty-eight, living off book reviews and social security, pale and thin and interestingly dissolute, most typically to be seen wearing a col-larless white shirt and jeans tucked into misshapen brown boots—looking like the kind of ex-public-schoolboy who, perhaps, did some drug-impaired carpentering or gardening for the good and the great— with his fiery politics and his riveting love affairs in which he was usually the crueller, Richard Tull published his first novel, Aforethought, in Britain and America. If you homogenized all the reviews (still kept, somewhere, in a withered envelope), allowing for many grades of generosity and IQ, then the verdict on Aforethought was as follows: nobody understood it, or even finished it, but, equally, nobody was sure it was shit. Richard flourished. He stopped getting social security. He appeared on "Better Read": the three critics in their breakfast nook, Richard behind a desk with an unseen Gauloise fuming in his trembling hand— he looked as though his trousers were on fire. Three years later, by which time he had become books and arts editor of a little magazine called The Little Magazine (little then, and littler now), Richard published his second novel, Dreams Don't Mean Anything, in Britain but not in America. His third novel wasn't published anywhere. Neither was his fourth. Neither was his fifth. In those three brief sentences we adumbrate a Mahabharata of pain. He had plenty of offers for his sixth because, by that time, during a period of cretinous urges and lurches, he had started responding to the kind of advertisements that plainly came out with it and said, WE WILL PUBLISH YOUR BOOK and AUTHORS WANTED (or was it NEEDED?) BY LONDON PUBLISHER. Of course, these publishers, crying out for words on paper like pining dogs under a plangent moon, weren't regular publishers. You paid them, for example. And,perhaps more importantly, no one ever read you. Richard stayed with it and ended up going to see a Mr. Cohen in Marylebone High Street. He came out of there, his sixth novel still unplaced, but with a new job, that of Special Director of the Tantalus Press, where he went on to work about a day a week, soliciting and marking up illiterate novels, total-recall autobiographies in which no one ever went anywhere or did anything, collections of primitive verse, very long laments for dead relatives (and pets and plants), crackpot scientific treatises and, increasingly, it seemed to him, "found" dramatic monologues about manic depression and schizophrenia. Aforethought and Dreams Don't Mean Anything still existed somewhere, on the windowsills of seaside boardinghouses, on the shelves of hospital libraries, at the bottom of tea chests in storage, going for ten pee in cardboard boxes at provincial book fairs ... Like the lady who was of course still there between the mortar board and the prosthetic legs (and what a moving acceptance speech she gave), like the laughing athlete who, after that mishap in the car park, awoke to find himself running a network of charities from his padded rack, Richard had to see whether the experience of disappointment was going to make him bitter or better. And it made him bitter. He was sorry: there was nothing he could do about it. He wasn't up to better. Richard continued to review books. He was very good at book reviewing. When he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed. Otherwise he was an ex-novelist (or not ex so much as void or phantom), the Literary Editor of The Little Magazine, and a Special Director of the Tantalus Press.
Bitter is manageable. Look how we all manage it. But worse happened, and the real trouble began. It was a viscous autumn, and Richard had stopped dating girls (he was married now), and Gina was expecting not just one baby but two, and the rejection slips were coming in on novel number four, Invisible Worms (does it merit these italics, having never been born?), and his overdraft practically trepanned him every time he dared think about it: imagine, then, Richard's delight when his oldest and stupidest friend, Gwyn Barry, announced that his first novel, Summertown, had just been accepted by a leading London house. Because he at least partly understood that the things you hate most always have to go ahead and happen, Richard was ready for this—or was expecting it, anyway. He had long been an amused confidant of Gwyn's literary aspirations, and had chortled his way through Summer-town—plus a couple of its abandoned predecessors—in earlier drafts.
Summertown? Summertown was about Oxford, where the two writers had met; where they had shared, first, a set of rooms in the mighty hideous-ness of Keble College and, later, a rude flatlet off the Woodstock Road,in Summertown, twenty years ago. Twenty years, thought Richard, forty today: Oh, where had they all gone? Gwyn's first novel was no less autobiographical than most first novels. Richard was in it, clumsily and perfunctorily disguised (still the promiscuous communist with his poetry and his ponytail), but affectionately and even romantically rendered. The Gwyn figure, who narrated, was wan and Welsh, the sort of character who, according to novelistic convention, quietly does all the noticing—whereas reality usually sees to it that the perspiring mute is just a perspiring mute, with nothing to contribute. Still, the Gwyn figure, Richard conceded, was the book's only strength: an authentic dud, a dud insider, who brought back hard news from the dud world. The rest of it was the purest trex: fantastically pedestrian. It tried to be "touching"; but the only touching thing about Summertown was that it thought it was a novel. On publication, it met with modest sales and (Richard again) disgracefully unmalicious reviews. The following year a small paperback edition limped along for a month or two . . . We might have said that Richard was tasting fresh failure, except that failure is never fresh, and always stale, and weakly fizzes, like old yogurt, with his sixth novel when Gwyn sent him bound proofs of his second, entitled Amelior. If Richard had chortled his way through Summertown, he cackled and yodeled his way through Amelior: its cuteness, its blandness, its naively pompous semicolons, its freedom from humor and incident, its hand-me-down imagery, the almost endearing transparency of its little color schemes, its Tinkertoy symmetries . . . What was it "about," Amelior? It wasn't autobiographical; it was about a group of fair-minded young people who, in an unnamed country, strove to establish a rural community. And they succeeded. And then it ended. Not worth writing in the first place, the finished book was, in Richard's view, a ridiculous failure. He was impatient for publication day.
With this mention of patience, or its opposite, I think we might switch for a moment to the point of view of Richard's twin sons—to the point of view of Marius, and of Marco. There was in Richard a fatherly latitude or laxity that the boys would, I believe, agree to call patience. Richard wasn't the one who went on at them about duties and dress codes and, above all, toy tidying—Gina had to do all that. Richard didn't scream or storm or spank. Gina had to do all that. On the contrary, with Richard in sole charge, they could gorge themselves on ice cream and packets of Wotsits and watch TV for hour after hour and wreck all the furniture, while he sat slumped over his desk in his mysterious study. But then Daddy's patience changed ... Amelior had been out for about a month. No stir had been caused by it, and therefore noparticular pall had fallen over the Tull maisonette. The reviews, while hardly the pyrotechnic display of sarcasm and contempt for which Richard hoped, had nonetheless been laudably condescending and unanimous and brief. With any luck, Gwyn was finished. It was a Sunday morning. To the boys this meant a near-eternity of unmonitored delectation, followed by an outing to Dogshit Park or better (the zoo or the museum, with one or other tranced and speechless parent) and at least two hired tapes of cartoons, because even Gina was TV-patient on Sunday nights, after a weekend in their company, and was often in bed before they were.
So. Daddy in the kitchen, enjoying a late breakfast. The twins, their legs further slenderized by the baggy bermudas they both sported, were to be found on the sitting room carpet, Marius ably constructing sea-and space-faring vessels with plastic stickle-bricks, Marco more dreamily occupied: with the twined cords of the telephone and angle lamp, which shared the low round table by the fireplace, Marco was ensnaring and entwining various animal figurines, here a stegosaurus, there a piglet, with a transformation on his mind, thus arranging things—how did the fable end?—so that the lion might lie down with the lamb . . . The boys heard a loud bedraggled wail from across the passage. This sound, its register of pain or grief, was unconnectable with their father or anyone else they knew, so perhaps some stranger or creature—? Marco sat back, thus tugging at his pickle of duckling and velociraptor, and the little table slewed; his eyes had time to widen before it fell, had time to glaze with tears of contrition and preemption before Richard came into the room. On patient days he might have said, "Now what have we here?" or, "This is a sorry pickle," or, more simply (and more likely), "Jesus Christ." But not this Sunday morning. Instead, Richard strode forward and with a single swoop of his open hand dealt Marco the heaviest blow he had ever felt. Marius, sitting utterly still, noticed how the air in the room went on rolling, like the heaving surface of the swimming pool even after the children had all climbed out.
Twenty years from now, this incident would be something the twins can lie back and tell their psychiatrists about—the day their father's patience went away. And never returned, not fully, not in its original form. But they would never know what really happened that Sunday morning, the chaotic wail, the fiercely crenellated lips, the rocking boy
on the sitting room floor. Gina might have pieced it together, because
things changed there too, and never changed back again. What happened that Sunday morning was this: Gwyn Barry's Amelior entered the best-seller list, at number nine. But before he did anything else, before he did anything grand or ambitious like pressing on with Untitled or rewriting his review of Robert Southey: Gentleman Poet or getting started on fucking Gwyn up (and he had, he thought, a good opening move), Richard was supposed to take the vacuum cleaner in. That's right. He had to take the vacuum cleaner in. Before he did this, he sat down in the kitchen and ate a fruit yogurt so rubbery with additives that it reminded him in texture of one of his so-called hard-ons ... Proposing the errand to him, inviting him to take the vacuum cleaner in, Gina had used the words nip and pop: "Could you nip round to the electrician and pop the Hoover in," she had said. But Richard's nipping and popping days were definitely over. He reached out and opened the door of the airing cupboard. The vacuum cleaner lay coiled there, like an alien pet belonging to the Dallek of the boiler. He stared at it for about a minute. Then his eyes closed slowly.
The visit to the electrician's would additionally involve him in a visit to the bathroom (to shave: he was by now far too mired internally to let the world see him with his surface unclean; he too much resembled the figure he knew he would eventually become: the terrible old man in a callbox, with a suitcase, wanting something very badly—cash, work, shelter, information, a cigarette). In the bathroom mirror, of course, he would be reduced to two dimensions, so the bathroom mirror was no place to go if what you wanted was depth. And he didn't want depth. By a certain age, everyone has the face they deserve. Like the eyes are the window to the soul. Good fun to say, good fun even to believe, when you're eighteen, when you're thirty-two.
Looking in the mirror now, on the morning of his fortieth birthday, Richard felt that no one deserved the face he had. No one in the history of the planet. There was nothing on the planet it was that bad to do. What happened? What have you done, man? His hair, scattered over his crown in assorted folds and clumps, looked as though it had just concluded a course of prolonged (and futile) chemotherapy. Then the eyes, each of them perched on its little blood-rimmed beer gut. If the eyes were the window to the soul, then the window was a windscreen, after a transcontinental drive; and his cough sounded like a wiper on the dry glass. These days he smoked and drank largely to solace himself for what drinking and smoking had done to him—but smoking and drinking had done a lot to him, so he drank and smoked a lot. He experimented, furthermore, with pretty well any other drug he could get his
hands on. His teeth were all chipped pottery and prewar jet glue. At each given moment, whatever he was doing, at least two of his limbs were immovably numb. Up and down his body there were whisperedrumors of pain. In fact, physically, at all times, he felt epiphanically tragic. His doctor had died four years ago ("Unfortunately I am terminally ill."); and that, in Richard's mature opinion, was definitely that. He had a large and lucent lump on the back of his neck. This he treated himself, by the following means: he kept his hair long to keep it hidden. If you went up to Richard Tull and told him he was in Denial, he would deny it. But not hotly.
None of this altered the fact that he had to take the vacuum cleaner in. He had to take it in, because even Richard (who was, of course, being a man and everything, a fabulous slob) could tell that the quality of life, at 49E Calchalk Street, had dramatically declined without it. In his study the feathery ubiquity of dust made him suspect, quite wrongly for once, that he was due another liver attack. And additional considerations obtained, like Marco's life-threatening allergies, which also had to be factored in.
By the time he had grappled the vacuum cleaner out of its sentry box Richard had long been weeping with self-pity and rage. He was getting good at crying. If women were right, then you needed to cry about three or four times a day. Women cried at the oddest times: when they won beauty contests, for instance (and when they lost them too, probably: later on). If Richard won a beauty contest—would he cry? Can we see him there, on stage, with his bouquet, his swimsuit and his sash, and with all his mother coming into his eyes?
By the time he got the vacuum cleaner out of the apartment and onto the stairs Richard was wondering if he had ever suffered so. This, surely, is how we account for the darkness and the helpless melancholy of twentieth-century literature. These writers, these dreamers and seekers, stood huddled like shivering foundlings on the cliffs of a strange new world: one with no servants in it. On the stairs and landings there were bikes leaning everywhere, and also shackled to the walls—and to the ceiling. He lived in a beehive of bikers.
By the time he got the vacuum cleaner down into the hall Richard was sure that Samuel Beckett, at some vulnerable time in his life, had been obliged to take a vacuum cleaner in. Celine, too, and perhaps Kafka—if they had vacuum cleaners then. Richard gave himself a loud breather while he looked through his mail. His mail he no longer feared. The worst was over. Why should a man fear his mail, when, not long ago, he had received a solicitor's letter from his own solicitor? When, rather less recently, in response to a request for more freelance work, he had been summarily fired, through the post, by his own literary agent? When he was being sued (for advances paid on unwritten books) by both hisex-publishers? Most of the time, though, his mail was just junk. Once, in the street, on an agitated April afternoon, on his way back from lunch with some travel editor in some transient trattoria, he had seen a city cyclone of junk mail—leaflike leaflets, flying flyers, circling circulars— and had nodded, and thought: me, my life. And a lot of the time he got no mail at all. Now, on the morning of this his fortieth birthday, he received one small check and two large bills—and a brown envelope, hand-delivered (no address, no stamp), featuring his own name in tortured block capitals, with the accurate but unfamiliar addendum, "M.A. (Oxon)." He put it in his pocket, and once more shouldered his load.
Calchalk Street was to be found off Ladbroke Grove, a good half-mile beyond Westway. For a time it looked as though Calchalk Street was going up in the world. Richard and Gina had formed part of the influx of new money, more than half a decade ago, soon after their marriage, along with several other youngish couples whom they would see and smile at in the corner shop, in the coin-op launderette. For a while, that spring, under the apple blossom, Calchalk Street was a wholesome jingle of progress music, with a tap-tap here and a bang-bang there—there were skips and scaffolds, and orange pyramids of builders' sand. Then all the couples moved back out again, except Richard and Gina. Offered gentrification, Calchalk Street had said—no thanks. Instead it reassumed a postwar identity of rationing and rent books. Offered color, it stayed monochrome; even the Asians and West Indians who lived there had somehow become Saxonized—they loped and leered, they peed, veed, queued, effed and blinded, just like the locals. Calchalk Street had a terrible pub, the Adam and Eve (the scene, for Richard, of many a quivering glassful), and a terrible sub post office, outside which, at eight o'clock every weekday morning, a queue of Hildas and Gildas, of Nobbies and Noddies, desperately coalesced, clutching forms. There were Irish families crammed into basements, and pregnant housewives chain-smoking on the stoops, and bendy old men in flares and parched gym-shoes drinking tinned beer under the warm breath of the coin-op. They even had whores, up there on the corner—a little troupe of them. Richard moved past these young women, thinking, as he always thought: You're shitting me. In parkas, in windbreakers, grim, ruddy, they presented themselves as socioeconomic functionaries. For money they kept the lid on men in cars.
A vacuum cleaner is designed to cruise grandly round a carpet. It is not designed to be toted through a wet London Wednesday, with the traffic trailing its capes of mist. Painfully hampered, cruelly encumbered, Richard staggered on, the brown base under his arm as heavy asa soaked log, the T-shaped adjunct in his free hand, the tartan flex-tube round his neck like a fat scarf, and then the plug, freed from its broken catchlet, incensingly adangle between his legs. The "freshness and moral vivacity," the "bravely unfashionable optimism" and the "unembarrassed belief in human perfectibility" for which Amelior was now being retrospectively praised—all this would presumably get even better when its successor appeared, now that Gwyn Barry never had to take the vacuum cleaner in. Richard crossed Ladbroke Grove with his head down, not looking and not caring. The plug and cord snarled his ankles like a hurled bolero. The tartan tube clutched his neck in a pythonic embrace.
Once in the shop he let the whole contraption crash to the counter, on which he then leaned for a while with his head in his arms. When he looked up again a young man was standing over him and readying a foolscap document. Richard croaked his way through MAKE, model,