A Ghost-Hunting Manual for the End of History

Mardell, Oscar. Review of Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks, edited by Andrew Gallix, Tomoé Hill and C.D. Rose. 3:AM Magazine, 27 October 2019:

[…] And it’s not only time that is out of joint. Andrew Gallix’s ‘Operators Manual’ begins with the haunting passage:

I live on a trap street. One of those fictitious roads cartographers add to their maps in order to confound plagiarists. Have I confounded you now that you have found me? Found me here, of all places — a non-existent one.

Gallix’s piece is, among other things, a masterstudy in place as palimpsest, a setting defined by what is elsewhere. […]

Here are some more highlights from the review:

Like the band that inspired them, the pieces collected here share an obsessive focus on the ordinary, lovingly cataloguing its mundane, glamourless, and frustrating weirdness. They document the awkwardness and the hilarity of human relationships, and of love in particular — the way it violates and completes our everyday lives, and the way it transcends the gender divisions by which those lives are often structured. The singularity of the source, in other words, has begotten wonderful issue. Love Bites is about as far away from the linear or sentimental retrospective as you can get. This is no starry-eyed tourist guide to some bygone era; think of it as a ghost-hunting manual for The End of History. It will be a hard — perhaps impossible — act to follow. And whatever comes next is destined to look like a parody of an old routine.

Love Bites

Love Bites, edited by Tomoé Hill, C.D. Rose and yours truly, is out now!

It contains 35 short stories inspired by the late Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks courtesy of:

Emma Bolland, Victoria Briggs, Tobias Carroll, Shane Jesse Christmass, David Collard, Sarah-Clare Conlon, Lara Alonso Corona, Cathleen Davies, Jeremy Dixon, Sharron Duggal, Wendy Erskine, Gerard Evans, Javi Fedrick, Mark Fiddes, Andrew Gallix, Meave Haughey, Tomoé Hill, Richard V. Hirst, David Holzer, Andrew Hook, Tom Jenks, Jonathan Kemp, Luke Kennard, Mark Leahy, Neil Nixon, Russell Persson, Hette Phillips, Julie Reverb, C.D. Rose, Lee Rourke, Germán Sierra, Beach Sloth, NJ Stallard and Rob Walton.

A Masterpiece!

A big thanks to Jane Roberts (pictured) for her rave review of We’ll Never Have Paris:

Strong contender for one of my favourite anthologies … ever. Almost 600 pages containing some of the most enlightening, complex, and intriguing authors of the present day. Swap the Brexit blues for this red, white, and blue marvel. It is impossible for me to choose a particular highlight, albeit the introduction alone is worth the full price of the collection. A masterpiece.

A Lungful of Absence

A big thanks to Des Lewis for his very generous review of my short story (“Celesteville’s Burning: A Work in Regress”) that features in We’ll Never Have Paris:

And, if many of the previous stories in this not-Paris book had not been quite so inspiring as they have been, then I would have thought this excellent Gallix story was the sole reason why I was MEANT to read this massive book (a book that I picked up at a whim!) — from the “Zut, zut, zut” of Marcel Proust to the Putain! Putain! Putain! of Sostène Zanzibar, this work is an astonishing delight. Zanzibar is a writer with a chequered career, a sexual fling with a young lady journalist etc., a rivalry with another exponent of the writerly or filmic arts, car chases across Paris, and much more. Yet, the biggest delight was his John Cage connected search for a tune within silence, or vice versa. And his publication of blank literature. (…) I LOVED this story. And so much more to tell you about it.

You will find all of Des Lewis’s real-time reviews of We’ll Never Have Paris here and there.

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

This appeared in Review 31 on 7 March 2018:

The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In

Neil Armstrong hoped that someone, some day, would erase the footprints he had left on the moon. It is in this spirit that American author Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition, covering the explorers’ tracks before loosing his characters into lostness. The Way of Florida, his outlandish debut, begins in medias res like an epic poem: ‘And waiting another day to enter port, a south wind took us and drove us away from land’. The colonial enterprise — blown off course after grinding to a halt — has already failed, and will keep on failing better as if The Odyssey had been redrafted by Beckett. Trapped in a ‘maze of unhaving’, increasingly ‘abundant in [their] lack’, the Spaniards soon want nothing more than ‘to not want’. For most of them, the voyage — ‘long for the things [they] do not come upon’ — will be a one-way ticket to ‘[h]igh nowhere of the utmost’. ‘I know there is no return,’ the narrator laments, ‘and I know there is no thing toward of which all of us sail’. Cut adrift from any destination, the journey loses its telos, becoming an end in itself. ‘I must be a man who walks,’ he acknowledges, likening life to an excursion we go on awhile until ‘the world moves on without us’.

With no backstory to speak of, or veritable narrative arc, The Way of Florida is a historical novel from which history has been all but excised. Were it not for the publisher’s blurb, I would have ignored that this quixotic attempt to establish Spanish settlements along the Gulf Coast was first chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors, or that his 1542 account had provided Persson with a general direction of travel. The erasure of most period markers (the first occurrence of the explorer’s name that I spotted was on page 175) allows a deep immersion in the here and now of lives conducted in extremis. A whole year elapses in the course of a four-line paragraph, while a single, unpunctuated sentence — reflecting the flow of real time — winds its way through an entire ten-page chapter. Significantly, the narrator comes to see his existence as a solitary long take, ‘the string of days entire from one until the end’: ‘Inside this now I live with my body underneath the sky’.

The beleaguered colonisers seek refuge in their corporeal abodes, envisioned with doors leading to closets where ‘olden acts’ are ‘ungone forever’. A counter-movement sees the self projected on to the hallucinatory landscape. The protagonist evokes ‘the lands inside [him] yet to fold out’ as though conjuring up the very ground on which he treads. This projection, imperialist as it may sound, inaugurates a fugue state; a desperate drive to leave oneself behind. Striding forth, he explains, is ‘our only path our only way toward some otherwhere some place we were not’. The narrative feeds off itself, like those stranded Christians who survive by partaking of the deceased — until there is only one cannibal left and nobody else ‘to enfooden him’.

It is through writing, however, that Cabeza de Vaca achieves an ecstatic, out-of-body experience. The true ‘otherwhere’ is the book in which he records his misadventures, ‘to bring me to the outside of this [situation] where I can look down to me and witness my own sentence’. Whether he is the author of his own sentence — his work, as well as his plight — remains a moot point. The narrator believes that he and his compatriots are doing penance for their sins, and that what appears like aimless drifting is all part of a grand design. He also claims to have been chosen as the recipient of divine messages, thereby establishing a direct link between ‘Our Lord our mapmaker’ and the figure of the writer.

The Way of Florida is thus a journey into fiction. The survivors — four unwitting horsemen of the Apocalypse — enter Indian lore as ‘holy men from the sky’. In the final part, there is a sudden switch from first to third-person narration, perhaps signalling that Cabeza de Vaca has absented himself through his work, reemerging as a godlike, omniscient voice. A subtle parallel is drawn between colonialism and the realist novel’s linguistic imperialism, exemplified by the narrator’s frustration at not being able to describe certain gestures or the sound the sun makes on the sand. The jarring notes provided by the regular intrusion of expletives — ‘the deep fuck we found ourselves in’ — advertises the underlying tension between contingency and necessity. The neat little blocks of text stranded in an ocean of blank space recall the breath clouds of the storytelling explorers (‘it is air in the shape of our sound in the shape of tales’) and the soothing blowing therapy of the faith healers. These typographical havens stand in stark contrast to the wildly poetic, often challenging, run-on sentences that compose them, stamping their hypnotic rhythm upon the reader. This is English, but not as we know it. The novelist seems to have taken it back to the dawn of language, producing a newly-minted idiom that feels both antiquated and timeless. It is this Adamic English that makes The Way of Florida sui generis, despite being based on a pre-existing text. As Maurice Blanchot put it, ‘What is important is not to tell, but to tell once again and, in this retelling, to tell again each time a first time’.

Phantom Plot

My review of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language will appear in the FT tomorrow. It was posted on their website today. Here is an extract:

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

As Tight As Wire

Richard Marshall, “Modernist Ghosts,” 3:AM Magazine 18 June 2013


. . . Reality is inevitably, and tragically, the boss, relentless and remorselessly impervious to the dreams of its inhabitants. We hope for autonomy, agency, but fear it’s just the drink talking post hoc most of time. ‘When you say my name, you retain nothing of me but my absence. And nobody is present behind these words I speak’ says Emilie in the Andrew Gallix short story “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter“. The story presents a doomed lover contemplating his lost love. The materiality, the bodily anxiety presses in against the frenetic, desperate and seething mind of the protagonist and throughout there’s a need to try and combine the two — the mind and the body — to understand the relationship in some way. The story is implacable and granite strong in this. The violence of physical action, the dangerous crime that bodies seem to presuppose in the narrative, carries ‘the mute reminder of the possibility of impossibility’ symbolized by an insane aside about anal rape. What kind of dark matter is being imagined in this? The subject is Occasionalism, the question of powers and causality.

. . . Gallix’s odd fiction seems also to hold lyricism in a merciless fixed embrace. The facts are stone, as dry as archaism, stratified, absorbed and the utter indifference to the sensual passion of its protagonist is expressed in a language chisselled and polished like marble. Everything is imagined with prodigal allusiveness. It’s as tight as wire, extremes of tragedy, pathos and irony are cut like contours ploughed into copper with a burin. If the effect is a dismembered cruelty, it is a cruelty of the universe, of a cause from somewhere else altogether, somewhere or some agency that knows enough to cause it.

Gallix’s approach is not alone in the Fiddleblack collection. Nor is this conceit I’m pressing — arbitrarily at times, but then making a run of it to see where we might go, for there are others that might be mysteriously pressed into action. The impossibility of causality without knowledge of how to create or annhiliate, well, that has some edge, even if we think it exactly false. But Gallix, to continue using him as a catalyst here, has that line about the ‘possibility of impossibility,’ and who cannot unforgive a paradox when we’re telling each other stories about how it isn’t?

. . . But the orgiastic demonstration of writing’s imaginative physique is best in the antiquity of Gallix’s Roman fairy tale of Valentin Vermot, a ghost haunted by ghosts that, abbreviated to an essentialist verbatim, goes: ‘Once upon a time there was a man called Valentin. Valentin Vermot. Just like you. He thought he was haunted by a ghost, but his ex-wife assured him that there was no such thing. “There are no ghosts,” she said. “There are no ghosts.” Valentin opened his eyes. He was all alone, but Emilie’s voice was still ringing in his ears. There are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts…’ . . .

Droll, Mischievous and Wonderfully Intelligent

Douglas Glover, “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter: Fiction,” Numéro Cinq 8 June 2013

Droll, mischievous and wonderfully intelligent confection, a Modernist riposte to the vacancy (absence) of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, in which Gabriel Josipovici has a walk-on role and the protagonist images himself as Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer AND Roy Scheider in Jaws in the same instant and someone wears a Clarice Lispector frock. It all begins with a mother telling a bedtime story, yes, yes, a scene of sadistic psychic violence like none other. Brilliantly witty. Deploys many of the Modern erotic positions: sex and text, love as desire for absence, and self as ghost (we all have that sense of the self being something that haunts itself). The teaser below accurately describes love and art, or maybe not. By Andrew Gallix who edits 3AM Magazine.

Your heart still skips like a trip of jackrabbits in the Arizona desert, where we carved our names on a bench close to the abyss. But when I look at you, well, I just feel dead inside. It has to be like this and no other way; otherwise it wouldn’t be art, would it? I’m in love with Jay now: I feed him mini Milano cookies and give him snug harbor. Anyway, I was never quite all there, was I? Long before we met, I was a character in one of your stories — ‘Sweet Fanny Adams.’ Young man goes looking for girl of his dreams in order to break up straight away. ‘At last,’ he says upon meeting her, ‘I have found my sense of loss.’ See? I haven’t forgotten. I started off as fiction, and to fiction I have returned. Our relationship was only a movement towards my disappearance. I am your sense of loss: the self-effacing subject of your work…”

“Emilie…” said Valentin.

“When you say my name, you retain nothing of me but my absence. And nobody is present behind these words I speak.”

Read the rest.

Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

This short story appeared in: Fiddleblack Annual 1: Apparitional Experience. Peninsula, Ohio: Fiddleblack ltd, 2013. 109-118.


Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

“Once upon a time…”
She looked up from the big picture book.
“Lie down now, there’s a good boy, or I shan’t read you a bedtime story.”
Her voice was stern but soothing. Soon it would speak from some secret wound, secreting senseless squander. Tales of strange voyages to enigmatic climes would pour forth; unmoored, rudderless. Suddenly, he felt himself all at sea: drowning in the wide inky-black yonder, dissolving like sugar in absinthe. Giant crabs threw him sidelong glances. Tentacles coiled, vine-like, around his legs and testicles. Mermaids, following some ancient sushi recipe, were wrapping his erect penis in seaweed. And just out of earshot, the unspeakable sound of behemoths rutting amongst the flotsam and jetsam of idioms, both dead and yet unborn. Somewhere, impossible worlds were being mapped, somehow — and there he was bound, on his bouncy bed, with his impossible words, striped pajamas and incarnadined buttocks. Shivering all over from sheer delight, he snuggled up under the eiderdown down, down, down…
“Are we all comfy now? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time…”
She paused for effect. He was hooked: reel him in.
“…there was a man called Valentin. Valentin Vermot. Just like you.”

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.
All eyes were on Emilie Pierrade, Marquise de Villette, who had just arrived, fashionably late, at the lavish publishing party. Her absence had haunted the labyrinthine corridors of the château for several long hours. Speculation was rife among industry movers and shakers. Had she got the date wrong? wondered Philiberte Moreau. Was it a publicity stunt? wondered Théodule Meuniaire. Did she take a wrong turn at Crépy-en-Valois? wondered Sostène Zanzibar. Smoldering behind a gold-tipped Sobranie, Emilie looked more glamorous than ever, in her crisp Clarice Lispector frock and speculative realist boots. Her neck was adorned with pearls of great worth and love bites that resembled those wild strawberries you happen upon by the roadside.
“Marquise, vous n’êtes pas Villette pour des prunes,” boomed Gabriel Josipovici, before making a big show of kissing her hand in the manner of Mitteleuropa, interrupting a conversation which had meandered from Ingeborg Bachmann to Stig Saeterbakken by way of László Krasznahorkai’s pop-up mint garden.
Sidonie de Nananaire rushed to greet her distinguished guest. Valentin charted the progress of her signature exploding bouffant across the grand ballroom. A few minutes later, having ascertained that no one was watching, he followed in the footsteps of the self-styled neo-rombière.
“Allez ma chérie — mwah, mwah — tell us all about him,” said the hostess, “on veut tout savoir. Tout.”
“Ladies,” said Emilie, hugging a giant golden dildo, “meet Jay Kühlotts, my new fiancé.”
They all went into raptures, gasping and mock-swooning like a shrill of schoolgirls.
“So what’s he really like, underneath?” inquired Philiberte Moreau, when all the whooping had subsided. She increasingly resembled an approximation of one of her own doodles, and Emilie was unsure whether this was a good thing or not.
“Je ne vais pas énumérer toutes ses qualités,” she replied, trying not to appear too smug, “mais je crois que j’ai vraiment de la chance.” She seemed to dwell on each word as though it were a world in which she might dwell. Forever.
Entranced, Valentin scrutinized his estranged wife from a safe distance. Like the past, she was another country now — out of bounds. She had returned herself to a place that precluded complete recognition. A place before them; before him, but mostly after. Valentin was rediscovering Emilie in her strangeness, bathed in an otherworldly glow. This disquieting experience reminded him of standing outside his childhood home and feeling that he was haunting himself.
He was haunting himself again.
As soon as Emilie spotted Valentin, all the other women turned round and melted away, out of politeness or embarrassment. For a few seconds, they just stood there, facing each other.
“Yes,” she said, breaking the ice with the same cruelty with which she had broken his heart, “I do that bunny nose thing. And, yes, I put on a mean moose voice — so, sue me. I’m blessed with honeyed hair and bee-stung lips, and wear purple panties like no other. All that is a given I have taken away. I’m in love with Jay now. When you look at me, your eyes light up like the 45,037 bulbs on the Plaza hotel in Las Vegas, where I wore a white see-through pencil skirt to our midnight wedding. Your heart still skips like a trip of jackrabbits in the Arizona desert, where we carved our names on a bench close to the abyss. But when I look at you, well, I just feel dead inside. It has to be like this and no other way; otherwise it wouldn’t be art, would it? I’m in love with Jay now: I feed him mini Milano cookies and give him snug harbor. Anyway, I was never quite all there, was I? Long before we met, I was a character in one of your stories — ‘Sweet Fanny Adams.’ Young man goes looking for girl of his dreams in order to break up straight away. ‘At last,’ he says upon meeting her, ‘I have found my sense of loss.’ See? I haven’t forgotten. I started off as fiction, and to fiction I have returned. Our relationship was only a movement towards my disappearance. I am your sense of loss: the self-effacing subject of your work…”
“Emilie…” said Valentin.
“When you say my name, you retain nothing of me but my absence. And nobody is present behind these words I speak.”
And with these words she was gone. The celebrity translator hailed a young waiter who was naked save for a polka dot bow tie. She picked a glass from the tray he bandied about with the recklessness of a seasoned tightrope walker. Her International Klein Blue eyes lingered on the departing buttocks as they threaded their way through the throng. She swished her drink around in the glass, absentmindedly. The waiter swayed to the cool clinking of the Zizek-shaped ice cubes. She swished some more.
Sidonie de Nananaire sidled up to her. “So, how did you two meet?”

Chiselled of chop, shiny of shoe and striped of sock, Jay Kühlotts was not one to be shushed lightly. He exuded natural authority. It was in his stature, posture, and ancestry; the cut of his suits and crispness of his shirts. It was in the size of his bank balance, the knobs on his timepiece and, above all, the bulge in his trousers. The latter was never openly acknowledged: like an eclipse, it could not be observed directly. The bulge was a given; its hegemonic presence always lurking in the background, just out of sight, or else glimpsed out of the corner of the eye — a black shape moving underwater. It hummed in unison with the air conditioning, an integral part of the ambient music of the corporate universe. No, Jay Kühlotts was not one to be shushed lightly. He had been headhunted by the American multinational that provided technical support for concentration-camp management during the war. As a proud citizen of a nation which had turned collaboration into government policy, this was a marriage made in heaven. Kühlotts lorded it over board meetings with a patrician sense of entitlement everyone sensed he was entitled to. With his property portfolio, gold cuff links and sports cars, he fancied himself as an enlightened despot, although he would never have put it in those terms, of course. He was a stickler for democracy, only imposing his own views once his colleagues had had ample opportunity to expose theirs. No, Jay Kühlotts really was not one to be shushed lightly. In fact, he was not one to be shushed at all. Yet shushed he had been, and nothing would ever be the same again. Nothing. Granted, it was not the loudest of shushes, not by a long chalk or any stretch of the imagination. More of a hush, really, if that. In truth, half a hush would probably cover it. And then some.
Yet this curt exhalation — this ill wind of change — had reverberated around the table like a violence without measure. Kühlotts played it over and over again in his mind, and each time it sounded more like a guillotine: shh! He began to wonder if it had not just been a loud sniffle, a muffled sneeze, or even a mere figment of his imagination. Confused, he made another attempt to get a word in edgeways, but the same young woman motioned him to hold his peace once more. The look of utter disbelief on his face was something to behold. He felt like Nicolae Ceausescu when his balcony speech was rudely interrupted by chanting, or Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square, just before its toppling.
“Madame, for all I know you may be the best translator in France,” he said, “but that’s no excuse for…”
Emilie Pierrade raised a manicured index finger to her puckered lips before resuming her conversation with the man sitting to her right. Still in full flow, she unbuttoned her blouse and cupped a pert breast out of her scalloped brassiere. She let it defy gravity for a few minutes, while leafing through the thick brochure in front of her.
“Hang on, hang on… Ah, here’s the passage!” she said, and without even really looking, reached out and placed her hand on the back of Kühlott’s head, slowly bringing him level with her exposed mammary gland. Holding him tight by the scruff of the neck, she smeared his mouth across her nipple and round and round the areola. Thus embosomed, he had no other option but to suckle down at her teat. He did so greedily and soon closed his eyes.
“There, there,” she whispered, running her fingers through his hair, “all better now. The Marquise is here. Shh… Shh… Right. Where were we? Ah, yes, that passage on page 707…”

“In any event,” she said, doing her trademark bunny nose, “you’re not hard enough to take me up the backside.” By not she meant not ever. There was a finality to the sentence that left little room for interpretation. Valentin watched her pick some fluff off the pink roll-neck she had just folded on the bed. The double bed that might as well have been two singles. He wondered if a woman lost all respect for her man — and a fortiori her husband — as soon as the threat of anal rape was removed from the equation. Perhaps it should always be lurking in the background, a mute reminder of the possibility of impossibility. That was in San Francisco.

On one of the corners of rue des Abbesses and rue Aristide Briand stands a cafe called La Villa. The decor could — and indeed shall — be described as gentlemen’s club stroke colonial chic. African masks look down, with long faces, from dark oak panelling. The lamps are always dimmed, as though some hallowed mystery had to be preserved from the cold light of day. In the first section, there are twelve black leather armchairs on either side of six black round tables. Valentin faces the armchair where Emilie once sat, with him, by the window. It is impossible to say for sure if it is the exact same one, or if the armchairs have been moved around. At bottom, it is a question of belief. Valentin believes, with every fibre of his being, that this is the armchair in which Emilie is no longer sitting. He believes that she has left something behind. He believes that her buttocks are haunting the leather seat — that everything must leave some kind of mark, for fuck’s sake. The distance separating the armchair in which Valentin is sitting from the luxury villa where Kühlotts is feeling Emilie’s breasts and cunt is 787.2 kilometres. A distance, his mobile also informs him, that he could — and indeed shall — cover by car in seven hours and thirty-five minutes. He pinches out the screen repeatedly to magnify the satellite picture. He is a missile, zeroing in — past fields and forests — on the Med’s answer to Southfork. Emilie slinks out to the pool in a sky-blue bikini and wide-brim sun hat, a slim volume dangling from her right hand. The distance separating the armchair in which Valentin is sitting from the armchair in which Emilie is no longer sitting is absolute. Valentin stands up and walks towards the empty armchair. 787.2 kilometres away, Kühlotts is feeling Emilie’s breasts and cunt. In five steps, he should be there. Seven hours and thirty-five minutes away, Emilie slinks out to the pool in a sky-blue bikini and wide-brim sun hat, a slim volume dangling from her right hand. With each step, the cafe grows wider and the armchair recedes. The universe is expanding faster and faster, pushing everything away; tearing everyone apart.

When Valentin Vermot put pen to paper that day, he found it difficult to concentrate. His mind kept wandering, although no source of distraction was immediately detectable. No motorbikes mooing past down below. No high heels peppering the pavement with desire. No children shouting merry profanities on their way home from school. Yet his mind kept wandering, though he still knew not where. He focused on his mind focusing, but it did not seem to be going anywhere at all. Having drawn a blank — by applying layer upon layer of Tipp-Ex — he proceeded to make a point, until the nib of his pen had pierced the near virginal sheet of paper, which only a few crossed-out words had thus far desecrated. He picked up a printout of an e-mail Emilie had sent him eight years earlier, on Sunday 30, May 2004 at 9:26 pm:
Having read it, he reached for the Tipp-Ex:
The universe was expanding, tearing them apart.

Are those spots of blood he spots on her riding breeches? Not spots per se, perhaps, or even — upon closer inspection — spots at all, for that matter, which is not to say, of course, that the breeches are ipso facto spotless. Far from it, in fact. Spot-free, yes, probably — possibly — but not spotless, no, on account of those flecks — or are they spots? — all down the inside of her left thigh. Was any cupping involved, he wonders? Did his testes roll around in her hand like wine in a taster’s palate? If so, was that before slipping on her latex gloves? Did she apply a little pressure at any point, possibly towards the end? Did it remind him of the way she squeezes the bulb on her vintage atomizer? Did he reflect, however briefly, upon the transformation of liquid into fine spray? Did he marvel, if only for a split second, at that small miracle? Did he picture her in a mist of musk and black silk stockings? At what stage did she place her left foot on the milking stool? Was that before slipping on her latex gloves? Did she assume this position on practical or aesthetic grounds? Was it a bit of both? Did he read anything into it, and if not, why not? Did he think, on reflection, that he should have done, and if so, why? Would he say that the adoption of this posture accounts (at least in part) for the presence of those spots (or flecks) on her riding breeches? Was it, shall we say, a contributory factor? Did he witness the appearance of a pattern on her left thigh? Was it like a slowly exposed action painting caught on Polaroid? Was it like a time-lapse of a newborn’s features morphing, over the years, into a death mask? Is the corpse the truth of the biological individual? Was it at this juncture that he slipped on her latex gloves?

The Marquise went out at seven. It could have been at six, of course, or even at five; indeed it usually was. That day, however, it was at seven, on account of her husband being frightfully late. Consistent is the life he leads, said the maid, who often likened him to the ever punctual pater familias in Mary Poppins. You could set the time by his comings and goings; indeed everybody did. At five o’ clock sharp, the maid would start dusting, scrubbing, mopping and ironing as if propelled by the velocity of a hard day’s work. At five on the dot, Madame la Marquise — freshly abluted and made up — stood poised to greet her husband like a domestic goddess who would never dream of spending the afternoon in the company of impossibly young bell boys with the stamina of Duracell bunnies. No, it really was not like him at all, said the maid, shaking her head; totally out of character. Lost in thought, the Marquise gazed out of the window, blinking into the blinding light that was streaming in. She was fiddling with her pearl necklace as if it were a rosary. You always know where you are with him, said the maid. And what about without him? Lost tout court, the Marquise gazed out of the window, blinking into the blinding light that was streaming in from long, long ago. I have seen the light and now I cannot see. She was fiddling with her pearl necklace as if rolling testicles around between thumb and forefinger. Her late husband was in fact so late now that it could only be too late. He would never be coming home again, not least, of course, because he was lying in a pool of blood with a gaping hole where his heart once was — or should have been. Dinner would be ruined now.

Seven hours and thirty-five minutes later, Emilie slunk out to the pool in a sky-blue bikini and wide-brim sun hat. She screamed, dropping a slim volume by Raymond Roussel into the crimson water. She screamed louder still when she caught sight of Valentin standing there, holding a notebook. He raised his index finger to his lips: “I will cause you to be absent,” he said, “I will annihilate you.” He opened the notebook and wrote This Woman over and over again.

When he finally looked up, she had disappeared. Valentin was tired after driving 787.2 kilometres. He walked into the villa and fell asleep on a leather sofa. He dreamt that Emilie was pregnant with his novel.
“It’s been in here for more than nine months,” she said pointing to her belly, “but the bloody thing won’t come out.”
He woke up still sleeping to find himself in bed, wearing his striped pajamas. He was trying to read a big picture book, but the pages were all stuck together. He threw a tantrum and Emilie had to smack his bottom in the end. A man wearing shiny shoes and striped socks was watching. Valentin caught sight of his gold cuff links as he left the room. Once Valentin had stopped sobbing, Emilie tucked him in, picked up the big picture book and started reading out loud:
“Once upon a time…”
She paused for effect. He was hooked.
“…there was a man called Valentin. Valentin Vermot. Just like you. He thought he was haunted by a ghost, but his ex wife assured him that there was no such thing. ‘There are no ghosts,’ she said. ‘There are no ghosts.’”
Valentin opened his eyes. He was all alone, but Emilie’s voice was still ringing in his ears. There are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts…