Probably a Florentine Exile

Richard Marshall, “Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’,” 3:AM Magazine 9 March 2014

A writer is in hell when her reader forgets her. This is the problem of Beatrice. Beatrice existed infinitely for Dante but he hardly if at all for her. Here’s the nub for Borges and his prodigious minimalism: we should stop thinking a ten minute conversation with Roberto Bolano would reveal to us the true meaning of 2666. And never doubt that our greatest love hardly acknowledges us. Andrew Gallix’s strange and Roman miniature is probably a Florentine exile; his ‘Fifty Shades of Grey Matter’ engulfs this type of inutterable despair. Yet still, whatever is imagined is there. If this is likened to a journey then it ends in a catastrophe which is not destiny but its secret instruction.

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The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

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.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

Seven Hours Away

****** 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 ****** is no longer sitting is absolute. Valentin stands up and walks towards the empty armchair. 787.2 kilometres away, Kühlotts is feeling ******’s breasts and cunt. In five steps, he should be there. Seven hours and thirty-five minutes away, ****** 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.
– “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

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As Tight As Wire

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

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. . . 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.

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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:
I LOVE YOU
I WANT YOU
I NEED YOU
I ADORE YOU
I MISS YOU
I AM OBSESSED WITH YOU
I ADMIRE YOU
I WORSHIP YOU
I CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT YOU
Having read it, he reached for the Tipp-Ex:
I LOVE YOU
I WANT YOU
I NEED YOU
I ADORE YOU
I MISS YOU
I AM OBSESSED WITH YOU
I ADMIRE YOU
I WORSHIP YOU
I CANNOT LIVE WIThOUT YOU
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…

Purposely with Ghosts

Tom Bradley, Rev. of Apparitional Experience, 3:AM Magazine 6 March 2013

Fiddleblack Annual #1: Apparitional Experience, Fiddleblack Press 2013

This is a collection of ghost stories “purposely without ghosts”. The epigraph, from On the Road, serves to announce the emphatic Americanness of the contents. Like Kerouac with his continuous roll of typing paper, most of the authors herein have opted for the unadorned style, which has its roots in that country’s Puritan past. The collection satisfies eminently one’s appetite for such work. There are few or no ghosts of the literary sort haunting the first hundred or so pages of this book.

And then, all of a sudden, in the last story, up springs a manifestation that couldn’t be more unAmerican, in the best of all the good senses of that near-universally approbative adjective. It’s Andrew Gallix, and he is purposely with ghosts.

His story, “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”, displays all the anti-Puritannical virtuosity, erudition, urbanity and sensory luxuriousness that have been established as his trademarks in such works as “Dr Martens’ Bouncing Souls“, “Celesteville’s Burning“, “Half-Hearted Confessions of a Gelignite Dolly-Bird” and “Forty Tiddly Winks“. Andrew Gallix stands out, not only in this book, but on the literary scene at large, as a major exponent of literary sophistication, both syntactical and philosophical.

When he goes On the Road (in his case, that would be the rue Victor Cousin, on his way to teach at one of the world’s oldest universities), Andrew Gallix treads in the astral traces of such unabashed eschewers of the unadorned style as Aquinas, Erasmus, Saint Francis Xavier, Balzac, Saisset, Victor Hugo, de Beauvoir, Teilhard de Chardin, Barthes, Deleuze, Ricoeur, et al. It stands to reason that he’s not obsessed with counting and banishing modifiers and flagellating subordinate clauses down to the bare declarative bones. He knows nothing of the retentive rules of deportment laid down by creative writing programs in the country that invented those institutions.

“Joycean” has been whored out as an adjective for so long, especially by Americans, that it lost meaning two generations ago. But if the term could be resurrected and shriven, it would apply to “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter” better than any fiction I’ve read in years. Andrew Gallix has done precisely what the stream of consciousness demands — and I don’t mean the long-hackneyed literary device, but the complex phenomenological proposition. Every sentence, every phrase, depicts and serves the multiple functions of human awareness, all at once, without discontinuity. The lush descriptions are delivered in a voice that delineates its own quirky persona and those around it, while moving the plot along, expanding upon thematic material, and being hilarious in the bargain.

This complexity can only be achieved by a writer who has at his fingertips all the resources of a longstanding culture, the full vocabulary of two languages, and none of the self-conscious laconicism of those perpetual Puritans who pout, unhaunted, across the Atlantic.