As the breadth, length, depth, mass and attitudinal range of the Commercially Available Novel all shrink toward the nugatory null-point of Acceptable Thoughts and Products (like the walls closing in, in a fiendish trap for a sex-obsessed hero of a ’60s spy flick), all we can all do is push back with our fearless Imaginations. As Readers/ Writers. Push back.
This novel works its themes and ramps its arguments and careens towards its lushly logical climax… but you’ll never guess the gist of the next ten pages by reading the prior five, nor the concluding 50 pages by reading the first 100. As structured (and governed by certain rules) yet unpredictable, in detail, as any flowing body of water. Which means I’ve kept to my half of the bargain.
Joel had told him, over his calamari at The Kitchen, that they were very, very interested in Shalah’s Nights. They.
By “They” Joel meant his “friends”. Paul could only guess. The Committee for Institutional Accuracy? The Christian Investments Association? Joel and his knowing aura.
“How would you like to make a very large chunk of untaxable money very, very quickly?”
How they’d read the unbound manuscript of the second rough draft he shoved in the back of a drawer, he had no clue. It was a long book (yet a fetal book) and it was fraught with the energy-sapping struggle between the duty of memory-based banalities and the longing for the thrill of invention. And also the parts that had been told to him by Shalah with her nude whispers, in Shalah‘s actual bedroom, on her big red silk pillow cases, the cold month he’d first arrived in Berlin, after each and every time he’d fucked her, standing (her legs around his waist) with Shalah’s autumn-brown back against her winter-white wall and hiking her higher as he came: these whispered facts needed shaping still.
Shalah’s whispers damning the regime in Iran. His agent Martin Crohn said Paul it needs work.
Paul’s German agent Martin Crohn with psoriasis.
Paul assumed Martin meant it needed more explicit sex (and only because Paul had made the mistake of bragging about the sex to Martin before Martin knew there was a book involved). Martin said,
-There’s a good story in there (if you can sort out the boring stuff that really happened) but it needs work, maybe. Also, is it maybe a little anti-Muslim, Paul? I don’t mean consciously. You know. What do you think? Be honest.
-The stuff about Khomeini and the Iranian secret police and her murdered uncles and all that? All that’s just exactly what she told me. The uncle electrocuted while fishing? I can take it all out but it’s true. You think it’s anti-Muslim? She was seventeen. We’d have to change her name.
-No, simply call her Shalah A. Her real name is a big part of the story.
Martin remembered with a tingle how Paul had told him of the inverted rhyme of Shalah’s big black shiny aureoles on the same body as the shiny black funnelling flower of her anus. Shalah’s anus would suck Paul’s dick in with a tactile pop. It was always as wet as her vagina. When she came it was seizures and then she would weep and calm down and loll about with one leg up, hands clasping that one knee, sort of smiling. Then wash her hands with admirable thoroughness and make a big dinner at midnight with her Matisse-print bathrobe open and her black-tipped tits sticking out and voluminous oil-well-fire billows of hair in a chopsticked-pile on the top of her exquisite head. Her eyebrows immobile as calligraphic strokes. She’d talk about her assassinated uncles. How one was targeted in Berlin and all the blonde girlfriends he’d had in such a short time, like a man stuffing his pockets at a closing buffet.
Paul began at the beginning. Wherever you begin is the beginning.
Paul told Martin:
When I had left Murkka, as I came to call it, on the day I became sane, as I came to put it, in my late-twenties, I did so thinking I’d never see that bastard Joel’s face again. In a way, I never did. When Joel rematerialized in my life, years later, here in Berlin, he was barely recognizable. He was old. Shrivelled and haggard old, too old, with permanent grooves in his face, although he couldn’t have been older than forty the first time I saw him in Berlin; he isn’t much older than I am.
Paul had already been through London and Stockholm and then lived in twenty different unregistered flats in eight different neighborhoods of Berlin and one would’ve thought it would have been impossible to track him down. He had certainly hoped so.
Joel of course pretended it was all a coincidence. Paul walking in a big coat, half-young and famished down a charmingly shattered street in newly gentrifying part of Kreuzberg with half a chicken in a clear orange bag dangling from one hand and, in the other, fifteen Deutschmarks of squarish coins, when someone on the street behind him called out “PJ!” which was the last thing he wanted to hear, in the last voice he wanted to recognize in the last city he ever thought he’d live in.
The first plane to get youngish Paul out of Murkka had restored the weightlessness of the womb to him. Free.
Even the flight attendants on the second plane, of the second half of the journey, from Amsterdam to London, made Paul realize that Murkka had been his problem all along.
They weren’t Americans, these flight attendants and they treated him like a Human. They neither shrank, subtly, from the possibility of the accidental contact of his hand nor spoke to him with the merciful smiles of saints attending to a leper’s tiresome needs. There was even a hint of flirtation in some of the interactions involving the beverage cart. Finally a man.
“What’re you reading?”
The tall young Black-ish girl seated to youngish Paul’s left, at the window, hugging her knees, shifted the corner of the curled cover of the paperback he held to his face. She was fourteen or fifteen, beautiful, young enough to get away with touching a stranger’s poetry book. Her hair, skin and lupine eyes were all the same dark caramel and her strong, structured, dashingly un-feminine jaw framed long lips with a sweetly sarcastic curl to them. Her voice rose just barely above the cabin’s whine of pressure.
Kara. Kara of London.
“Ah, my Mum knows him” Kara nodded, stroking her big chin. “Quite well. Uncle Teddy.”
Paul and Kara became friends during the brief flight and it was Kara’s mother, Netta of London, who offered to drive Paul, with a smirking Kara scrunched in the back of their quirky Italian motor, from foggy Heathrow into a summery London the year of the Poll Tax Riots and the sub-Saharan drought. Paul remembered the drought and Netta’s pussy like a fold in a black vinyl purse and the fires of the riot.
Paul called Kara Big Kara because she was six foot tall. Big Kara of London.
Big Kara and Netta of London lived alone in a big flat on the next-to-the-top floor of a genteel building in West Ken, on Talgarth Road, overlooking the Baron’s Court Tube Station. Paul, who had had three one-hundred-pound notes in his pocket, one small suitcase and only vague plans to stay in a youth hostel, or something, near Piccadilly Circus, gratefully accepted Netta’s offer to live in their living room (and bathe in their bathroom) until Paul knew, as she put it, discussing him to his face in the third person, what Paul wants to do.
She was tall and skinny and so Black that her knuckles looked blue, with a shaved head and the requisite (for a Black woman with a shaved head) hoop earrings. She had the sternly bemused facial expression of a woman who knew every detail of everything that was scheduled to happen during the next five years of the future and she smelled very strongly, almost antiseptically, of cloves.
When she was home from work on the weekends she was partial to flowing, robe-like, monochrome garments or two-piece gold ensembles that showed off the opal on the silver in her navel. On the weekends Netta like to talk books and she liked clomping around in vintage cork-soled platforms and liked also to barge unto the unlockable bathroom while Paul was bathing. She claimed she was born in Alaska.
Her face was all mouth when she lipsticked up in hot pink or sticky orange or silver before heading off to a prominent social event on weekend evenings. The ’60s-style false eyelashes helped. Her ears were chocolate flakes and her tongue a strawberry.
The kitchen was stacked with white and green cardboard and Styrofoam boxes of expensive empty weeks-old take-away meals because neither Netta of London nor Kara of London could (or cared to) cook, so they were delighted when Paul brought his rustic skills to the closet-sized kitchen. He made them pots of chilli with spicy sausage and cinnamon, or surprisingly subtle soups of one meat and three vegetables mixed with sour cream and onion dip. Sometimes, drawn to the room by the masculinely homey chop of the knife on the cutting board, Netta came in after work, carefully removing her blazer and rubbing her eyes and leaning cinematically against the door jamb, arms folded over her narrow chest, each set of tapering fingers bunched into a wing at each elbow and Netta said things like,
“Paul, where are you from in the States?”
“Why did you leave?”
“Several reasons. Including my girlfriend cheating and my best friend dosing me with a fucked up drug of some kind and some dude trying to rape me. All on the same day. I became a fully functional psychotic for a week. I was like: fuck this. Pardon my language. So I left. Why did you leave the States?”
“Usual reasons. What are your long-term plans?”
“If I could sing I’d say world domination.”
“And if you couldn’t sing?”
“I have an idea for a graphic novel. Keep it to yourself because I haven’t copyrighted it. I would be wrecked if…”
“Cross my heart.”
“It’s an epic story called Pree about a girl named Pree. P-r-e-e. Only she’s not really a girl. She’s not really a human. She’s a pre-human. But she’s also kind of a super-human. The idea is that intelligent life has been on the Earth, in cycles, for a billion years or something. Okay? Only every time it reaches a certain level, it destroys itself, and the whole process has to start again from scratch. Netta, can you please hand me that onion?”
“So it’s like the good old Atlantis story.”
“Well, yes and no. The idea is that there’s a rare bloodline that goes all the way back to the beginning of humanoid life on earth, epigenetically coded with all the knowledge of every lost civilization there ever was. If you can decode the information in the blood, you can reconstruct the lost technologies and rule the world forever or until the next cataclysm. Okay? Only like a few hundred people on the planet… all extremely mixed, racially… carry this special bloodline.”
“No one can accuse you of being unimaginative, Darling.”
“Thing is, I can’t draw. I can only write. I figured I’d look for a cool young Artist to hook up with in London or Dublin or something…”
“Have you considered Berlin?” asked Netta. “I have an old friend there.”
Sometimes young Paul would be lost in a deep, dreamless sleep on the fold-out couch in the living room, the fearful and thrilling sleep of the freshly-minted expat, exhausted from walking in every direction around a strange and pitilessly major city six thousand miles from home. Sometimes he’d be lost in his nomad dreams while Big Kara was out clubbing and Netta was who knows where and he’d be jolted out of pillow-clutching sleep, his heart at speed, by a thunderous crash at three or four in the morning. He’d wonder if the upstairs neighbors were drunks or being screamlessly murdered with a silent axe or if someone was trying to break into the flat with a sledge hammer wrapped in cushions or if a meteorite had hit the roof or just an elephant fallen out of a circus plane. It happened more than once but Paul suspected that to mention this disturbance, the morning after, might seem provincial or, even worse, like a complaint, which would be so rude from a lodger staying rent-free with well-meaning strangers as sweet as Netta of London and Big Kara of London, who became almost like distant cousins to Paul until he forgot almost entirely about them.
On a Saturday Paul had arranged to meet a graphic Artist at a cafe in the Trocadero Centre, right there at Piccadilly, opposite the statue of Eros, a lunch date at noon precisely, a neat little paper shopping bag from a soap boutique carrying texts and primitive sketches dangling from his hand. He was wearing white corduroy bell bottoms, stolen trousers he’d felt humiliated in just a few months before, though now they were sort of in, because they were sort of ’60s and the ’60s were sort of in again. There were Hendrix imitators at Covent Garden playing psyched-out Strats with their teeth and girls with long, straight, center-parted hair in paisley headbands, girls wearing Velveteen chokers, guys in Nehru Jackets, guys in vintage military jackets sporting rose-tinted granny-glasses, all that colliding and interbreeding with a technology-driven Neo-Soul thing, the sampled break-beats and clipped orchestrations of Soul ll Soul and Acid Jazz like Young Disciples, Galliano, exciting as Hell because London was swinging again, this time with benign irony, this time with a wink, a nudge, a will toward fun, togetherness, a righteous scene, a Ravey thing, a chance to do it right this time without Vietnam and Charlie Manson and Enoch Powell to spoil it.
Rainy foggy London wasn’t even being rainy any more, it was like a Mediterranean city now, it was sun-scoured and hot, sunny all day, baking under cloud-free skies and nothing but color wrapping the earth, color and chrome and jugglers, mimes, factory-fresh Marianne Faithfulls. Foil-wrapped baked potatoes, mounded with sour cream, floated up every street in pretty runaways’ hands or fallen to ruin in the cobbles and set upon by pigeons almost everywhere you looked.
Paul got into the shopping center and up the escalator to the appointed cafe at precisely two minutes to noon, having walked all the way from Talgarth road, about forty five minutes in his white corduroy bell bottoms, sandals he’d purchased en route, tight black Stone Roses t-shirt and a floppy, suede, wide-brimmed hat he’d borrowed from Kara, cutting through the Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Green Park in a convenient row. Girls in cars had whistled and honked at Paul as he walked: when had this ever happened in the US?
He was used to being okay-attractive in an underground sort of way but now he was, what, leading man material by a society’s mainstream standards? You didn’t have to die and be reborn (with better luck) to make this miracle happen? All you had to do was fly to a different country…?
Paul scanned the cafe and saw only a waitress with red metallic bangs, then a blank-faced figure in a business suit topped with preposterously-expected bowler hat and, deeper into the cafe, he saw a balding, overweight, messily-mustached man in a sleazy red windbreaker, scratching the tip of his nose while reading the menu.
Paul said, not loudly, “Gareth” and up the nose-scratcher looked.
Paul paged politely through Gareth of London’s huge, expensive, leather-bound portfolio and listened to him talk in an amazingly well-rehearsed simulation of a radio chat-show voice, the dulcet tones, the complete sentences, the amusing anecdotes delivered with dry aplomb while Paul tried to angle the portfolio in such a way that the restlessly-circulating waitress, with her striking Cleopatra cut and trilobite-colored dish rag, wiping and re-wiping the empty tables with nothing better to do, couldn’t see, over Paul’s embarrassed shoulder, page after page of Gareth’s amateurishly-executed drawings of narrow-wasted, mammoth-breasted, nostril-less women with swords. The breasts resembled up-curving sharks with doorbells for noses and each sword featured a star-shaped glint of light and each page came topped with a grandiose character-name in the blocky letters that Paul would eventually come to associate with irritating, entry-level graffiti.
Paul escaped after nearly two hours, promising to call Gareth that weekend, and he hurried down the down escalator before Gareth could settle the bill and catch up with Paul and offer to walk or drive Paul home. If Gareth had a car, Paul already knew how its cramped and littered interior smelled. But Paul couldn’t get out of the shopping center because the front doors were locked and chained and fronted with steel shutters as if it were two in the morning instead of two in the bloody afternoon.
Just like a horror movie’s nightmare logic of pursuit, Gareth would be down that escalator any minute. Paul was literally panicking until he saw a security guard come hurrying from around behind the escalator with a large flashlight that was on for some reason and Paul said, “Can you let me out?” and the security guard said, “Right but you’ll have to hurry!” as if this really were a horror movie and the security guard, too, knew that Gareth with his terrible portfolio was due to come down that escalator any moment…
… the steel shutters went half-way up and the double-doors were unchained and the security guard opened them inwards and literally shoved a crouched and bewildered Paul through the low gap and slammed the doors behind Paul and Paul was out…
…among evil blue smoke and guttering fires here and there and shouting, wild oaths, football songs, the bad clatter of hooves of maddened horses on sidewalk and tarmac and counter-intuitive cheers in the distance above the ambient roar of an invisible crowd of raging tens of thousands. The city center had gone berserk and sidewalks in every direction were weaponized in crunchy scurf of blue-white skidding glass hitting strewn mannequins in self-satirizing postures of distress and a Porsche not ten meters to Paul’s right, at the curb, on its chrome-turtle back in the nasty, consuming grip of horrific orange, green and black-braided flames.
Mounted Bobbies galloped through smoke and swung their truncheons with professional, jaw-clenched hatred at dreadlocked white Londoners (Paul later learned they had come in from all over the UK and perhaps the world) who were spitting teeth and lifting makeshift bin-lid shields and swung and jabbed with pantomime custodial weapons: mop handles, broom handles, long-handled squeegees, rakes and hoes. If only they’d carpeted the streets with extra-long rakes, tines-up, the horses would all be largely cross-eyed or unconscious by now but as Paul very cautiously strolled (half-feigned expression of touristy bewilderment on his face), rather than ran, he watched as one crusty radical after another went down in ripped arcs of blood and teeth or ran off with a demon-bearing horse in nightmarish pursuit and he remembered thinking, he thought, this was like the real version of football and it would have been much better in a stadium, with all the participants in helmets, and he sincerely hoped he wasn’t brained by a flying cobble. Things got much safer by the time he reached the drought-brown edge of Kensington Gardens, nannied kiddies obliviously sailing paper boats down the serpentine and smiling up at Paul as Paul jogged by, inexplicably dusty, with his soap-boutique bag (the bourgeois bag that probably saved him from being clobbered by a Bobby), shaking.
“You okay?” asked Netta, when she opened the door. Paul had left his temporary copy of the keys in the bathroom. Netta was wearing her glasses, an intellectual in a movie, and Paul there, long pause, rubbing his eyes on the threshold.
“I have seen some things,” he said.
“Nothing I haven’t seen a thousand times,” Netta laughed, when she barged into the bathroom later that evening, looking for a lipstick and her pot of glitter. Paul thrashed the water to cover his cock with a washcloth when she burst in.
“Hmmm,” said Netta, “You’re going to need a bigger wash cloth. If you haven’t managed to find a place to stay, you’re welcome to stay here until Christmas. Have you managed to find a place to stay?”
“You’re welcome to stay until Christmas. You’ve been here three weeks and you’re nice and tidy, you don’t smoke or snore or watch telly and you’re gentleman enough that you haven’t abused my hospitality by trying to screw my daughter, yet. Don’t you think she’s pretty?”
“But I’m a gentleman.”
“You’re a gentleman. I like gentlemen. Have you ever made heart-stopping love to a Black woman?”
“That’s what I thought. Up for it? ”
Paul towelled himself and moved in an erect crouch down the hallway to Netta’s bedroom, hair wet, hair wild, tapping two shy shave-and-a-haircuts, separated with a theatrically audible throat-clearing, on the bedroom door before, as if under its own power, it opened. The bedroom, the inside of which Paul had never before seen, was a windowless box with crushed red velvet walls, mirrored ceiling, an incongruously massive chandelier (scored at an estate sale) connected to a dimmer switch and six bare futon mattresses covering all but the edges of the wooden floor. The futons were less like beds than mats in a martial arts studio. Paul took it all in with a Bohemian shrug, swaggered erect toward Black magnificently shiny-naked Netta as she worked the dimmer switch to a low, gold, sultry light.
Paul reached to pull Netta into a wolfish soul-kiss but Netta slid in under Paul’s arm and torqued her hips as she gripped the arm’s elbow and shoulder and, with a birth-giving grunt, flipped Paul like the elegant graph of an engineering curve over the fulcrum of her iron-hard spine, slamming him on his back, erection intact, wham, where she kissed him, her nose to his chin, her up his down, the crystals constituting the chandelier above them dancing from the impact, and proceeded to bite his nipples and slide lower still. Which all felt like a natural extension of the riot.
“The neighbors,” gasped Paul, seeing green stars.
“Old and deaf. Can you take this?”
“I think so…”
Netta hoisted herself with another grunt and straddled Paul’s face and touched it, precisely, here and there, along certain esoteric meridians, with the cold silver Ankh ring hanging from her clitoris, her arms extended for balance, a kinky benediction. Some kind of OCD ritual she had to complete every time she had a man in there. “Here’s the deal. If you can pin me, you get to penetrate and seed me. Otherwise, I’ll just relieve you with my mouth. Agreed? But first… ”
The choke hold/ cunnilingus.
Paul began at the beginning.
Shalah washed her hands carefully and saw to it that Paul washed his and handed Paul two fat carrots to grate in the kitchen. Paul took a bite off the fattest end of one and said,
“She made me feel like a total virgin.”
“You? You make me feel like a dirty young man.”
“I’d only been feeling like an adult for a few years, at most, when I met Netta… and, voila, I was a schoolboy all over again. Licking iron pussy on command.”
“It was very intense. I learned a lot.”
“You sure did.”
“I wonder what she’s up to now? I was thinking about Netta and Kara on the way over here when that asshole Joel caught me on the street, in fact. I assumed I was hallucinating. What’s he doing in Berlin?”
“Everybody is in Berlin.”
So Paul had told the Netta-and-the-Riot story, to Shalah, as he grated carrots, helping Shalah to prepare for their chicken dinner at midnight.
And he told it again, much later, to Martin, Paul’s agent, reminiscing about Shalah and London over coffee in Martin’s office. He left out the part about Joel.
Martin was so excited and Germanically agitated by the story that he scratched the side of his face unconsciously as he listened to Paul tell it. Especially the violent Sex. Consequently, Martin’s face bled. Blood was in his collar-length, stringy-blond hair. As if Martin had been hit by an errant truncheon from the story. Paul handed Martin a tissue and said,
“Those two were my Yin and Yang… the conceptual bookends… of my sexual history. Shalah was submissive like a cat is submissive, you know, how they appear to be cuddly and soft as long as they want to be stroked? Okay, I mean, no, that’s unfair, because Shalah really was genuinely sweet. Netta was too strong to be sweet. I lived with her and her daughter Kara for a year and a half and never managed to pin Netta to the mat. She was way too fucking strong. It’s like I still don’t even know what hit me and the inside of her pussy remains an unexplained mystery like a UFO.”
“Sounds so very hot, Paul. How old was Netta?”
“No idea. She was an academic of some kind… I figured that much out. She spent her days writing confusing sentences with obscure jargon in the French style. I ordered one of her books online a few years ago, hoping I was in it, and, man, it was just incomprehensible. She published a monograph called Homo Lügner and another book called Paragnosis. She works in Brussels now. She never let me come in her mouth but she was a great kisser. Except when she pissed in my mouth.”
When Paul told the story about the Battle of Trafalgar Square and Shalah A. and Martin Crohn and Joel to Claudia Chang, during their Week of Miracles, he left out the bit about Netta . Still, he began at the beginning. Wherever you begin is the beginning. Claudia said,
“Why don’t you work the material about the riots into the book about Shalah A? As context?”
But the fact was that Paul could no longer quite remember how much of what he remembered had really happened.