Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Writings

Writing workshop exercises, parts I-III

Prompt: Write a passage in which the narrator watches another character handle something. While your narrator does not try to interpret the actions of the watched character, the way that character deals with the object economically gives information that is essential to our impression of him or her
Execution: Steal a character from a Jean-Luc Godard film

“I don’t like your photography.”
Veronique wasn’t looking at me; she was rolling a cigarette, a look of perfect absorption on her face, the filter poking from the corner of her mouth. The paper was spread out on a book in her lap; the table between us was still damp with that morning’s rain.
“You don’t like my photography?”
“No. I don’t like it.”
“That’s the first thing you could think of?”
“So what if it is? You have this way of taking photographs. You line up the camera with the object. You make sure it stands out against the background. You fiddle about with the shutter speed and the aperture for a bit. Then you open the shutter. I don’t like it.” She started crumbling tobacco into the paper.
“That’s how you’re supposed to take photos,” I said.
“Supposed to, supposed to. I don’t care about supposed to! Everything you take has all these straight lines and symmetry. There’s nothing of you in it. You see something and you reproduce it exactly. Technically it’s very good. But you turn it into a science. It’s not art.” She tucked the edge of the paper under the filter, licked along the top, and rolled it up in a single fluid motion. She could roll better than any machine: her cigarette was perfectly cylindrical, the tobacco evenly distributed, its surface mathematically smooth. There was a half-smoked cigarette still giving off faint wisps of smoke in the ashtray. She didn’t seem to notice it as she lit hers.
“What else?” I said.
Veronique took a long, hungry draw. “You read too much fiction,” she said. “It’s indulgent.”
“It’s important.”
“It’s indulgent. What was that phrase you had? The untransfigured suffering of man. How is that not indulgent? You just like to wallow in your own disaffection.”
She set down her cigarette on the ashtray to take a sip of wine.
“I don’t like your line on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,” she said. “It’s revisionist.” She started to roll another cigarette.
“Taraki asked them-”
“I know Taraki asked for intervention!” she said. “It doesn’t matter. The people of Afghanistan didn’t. They knew the Soviet Union was just another imperialist power by then.” Again she brought her half-rolled cigarette up to her lips, brushed them against one edge, and rolled it up. “I don’t like the fact that when you want to meet up we do, but when I want to meet up you’re sometimes busy,” she said, lighting it. “I cancel my plans for you. It’s an expression of male privilege.”
“You enable it,” I said.
She leant her cigarette against the ashtray to knock softly on the table. “I know. You should criticise me for it.”
“Maybe I will.”
“You should. What else? I don’t like the fact that you hardly ever drink. And you only ever smoke when you’re drinking.”
“Why not? Drinking and smoking isn’t productive.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re right. I just don’t like it. It’s puritan, isn’t it?” She started to roll another cigarette. “I don’t like the fact that you grow a beard for a couple of days and then shave it off. I don’t like it when we’re in bed and you don’t let me know when you’re about to come. I don’t like the way you treat everything we do like a hobby. As if it’s not important.”
Veronique finished rolling her cigarette. For the first time she seemed to notice the neat little row of half-smoked cigarettes on the ashtray. She smiled. “OK,” she said, softly. “You do me now.”

Prompt: Try to locate a narrator’s voice that is fluid, uninhibited, connected to breath, natural cadence, with an automatic sense of what’s important. Look closely at ordinary events or behaviours and write about them in close detail. Develop this voice until it begins to focus on an event, person, or image that seems damaging, upsetting, or scalding.
Execution: Write as a psychopath.

In sci-fi films the monsters are always disgusting. They ooze fluids from every pore, their exoskeletons glisten with mucus, their digestive juices slop about in wide arcs, their goo splatters everywhere once our heroes inevitably blow them up. That’s us. It’s not the unknown that really scares us, it’s ourselves. It fascinates us too.
I’m in the food court of a mall in San Antonio, watching people eat. One guy in particular, a fat old geezer in one of those mobility scooters. He lifts the cheeseburger up to his face. As he bites into it the crumbs stick to the grease surrounding his mouth, the oil runs in rivulets down his face, little specks of gristle wedge themselves inbetween his teeth. When he eats the skin hanging down from his neck sways from side to side. Ripples pass across it, as slow and solemn as the tides. He’s not looking in any particular direction, he just stares into the hazy distance, his eyes moistening with – with what? Regret? Shame? Self-loathing? I wish, but it’s unlikely. I don’t really care. It’s hard to feel sorry for him.
I can see it all. I can see the blood rushing through his fat-clogged arteries, the phlegm in the back of his throat that gives his breath its laboured wheeze, the yeasty cells swarming in the pits and folds of his belly. His jeans are rubbing against his thighs; the skin there is breaking out in livid sores; the pus bubbles away just underneath. His ears are caked with wax, slimy stuff, clotted with particles of dust. Somewhere in the fetid depths of his intestines the walls of his gut are pulsing and contracting, squeezing along a half-formed turd inch by gruesome inch.
The burger is finished; now he’s moving on to the chips. He grabs a couple with one swollen hand, he smears them in the ketchup, he shoves them roughly into his mouth. A big gulp of Coke. More stray liquid drips courses down his cheeks, collecting in little puddles around the stubble that bristles from his skin. I see the burp shuddering in his chest before it bursts out. His lips wobble about like plates of jelly. A light spray of saliva splatters against his plate, curdling with the juices from his meal.
A few tables down two slim blonde girls are eating with their mother. They’re seventeen, maybe; their chatter fills the air with spittle, their nostrils are plugged with mucus, stringy conduits squirm and writhe inside their bodies. They seem to hardly notice that the spectre of their future is just across from them. She sits glumly, her sour, defeated look telling me all I need to know: she has a wardrobe full of polyester pantsuits and a big grey minivan, there’s a bottle of Diazepam on the bathroom counter of her sprawling bungalow in the suburbs. Eventually she’ll grow tired with it all and die; the kids will cry about it for a while, then they’ll slowly start to forget. The microbes will disperse her fluids through the soil.
I don’t eat much these days; some dry crackers, occasionally, with a glass of water. I’ve given up on sex entirely – all that grunting and sweating and squirting; I don’t miss it at all, it’s better to observe people from a distance. I’m smoking a lot; I’ve grown quite attached to amphetamines. I make do with one or two hours of sleep a night. My friends tell me I’m wasting away; they say it in voices dripping with self-righteous concern. I’ve never felt more alive. Once you detach yourself from the world you can see it for what it is. It’s a joke. It’s all one big joke, and only I seem to get it.

Prompt: Describe a setting employing a neutral 3rd person narrator who moves close to the point of view of another character, intensifying the emotional level of the narrative tone.
Execution: Clichéd cynicism.

Millennium Square was trying its hardest to look festive. The blackened spire of the town hall had been garlanded with red and green lamps, but the light that cast long shadows against its neo-Gothic striations couldn’t help but look slightly ominous; the fiddly architectural decorations took on the aspect of gargoyles, their pareidoliatic faces leering menacingly at the shoppers below. The whole building shone against the darkening sky with a dull glow; its gloomy shades were reflected in the clouds that hung overhead like swarming zeppelins.
In the square itself, a small ice-rink had been set up, rimmed with plastic holly. On its surface a few parents spun in tightening circles, hand in hand with their children; to one side a kid bawled as his mother gingerly dabbed the wound on his knee with a paper tissue. Elsewhere there were plasterboard stalls made up to look like log cabins, selling plasticky ornaments and hot dogs. Their names – Hans’s Giftorium, Authentischen Wiener Würstchen – were carved in Gothic lettering above the window; the attendants shivered in lederhosen and greeted shoppers with chirping Northern accents. (A deep scar ran through the paving stones to the side of one stall, the memory of a bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe seventy years before.) In a grotto decked out with cardboard cutouts of reindeer and Christmas trees, a freckled child idly massaged his snot into Santa’s cotton-wool beard as he reeled off a list of videogames. More lights were strung between the coal-grey buildings that lined the roads feeding into the square, forming snowflakes and gift-wrapped boxes, and at the end an illuminated sign reminding revellers that their Bacchanalian enjoyment had been made possible by the Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce. Fairytale of New York was blaring out from a stereo system:
You scumbag you maggot
You cheap lousy f—–
The snow that had fallen in a giddy tumult three days previously had condensed into blanketing layer of slurry, stained yellow by grit, brown by dog shit, black by the cigarette-ends that could just be seen buried under its semitransparency. A thousand worn-out boots trudged through it: bloated old women with shopping bags and expressions of harried resentment, children in scuffed wellies kicking ice into each other’s faces, students dithering drunkenly.
Sajid elbowed his way through the crowd. He loved Christmas. It was when he did his best business, of course – all the recovering addicts would balk at the thought of having to spend time with their family and run straight back into a nonjudgemental opiate embrace. It wasn’t just that, though. There was something beautiful about the lights and the sounds and the enforced merriment, about the way they coincided so perfectly with the spike in suicides and deaths from alcohol poisoning.
There’d been no Christmas in his family. He’d come home from school one day loudly demanding a Game Boy and a pair of Nikes; his father had intoned from behind his beard that Christmas was for the kuffar, that Christmas was when the unbelievers worshipped Isa and Iblis. Despite everything he’d done since then, the red and white hat perched jauntily on his head still gave him an illicit thrill.
He saw his guy leaning against the side of Santa’s Grotto. Terry had managed to find his way off the dole queue for a couple of weeks; he was dressed in an elf’s green uniform. That was good. More dough meant more business. Their eyes met as he crossed the square. As he passed, Sajid slipped a little package into Terry’s hand; Terry nervously passed him a tightly rolled wad of banknotes. They didn’t say a word to each other.
Sajid set off down the street, passing under the Chamber of Commerce’s glowing sign. They were doing exactly the same thing as him: selling misery and calling it happiness. The only difference was that Sajid was better at it. After all, what more could anyone want for Christmas than a quarter-ounce of smack and ten tabs of alprazolam?

Cain vs. Gingrich: Battle of the Scrotums


The Woodlands, Texas. A stage. Two chairs. An audience. The whirring of cameras. Two SCROTUMS are engaged in debate, following the time-honoured traditions of Lincoln and Douglas.

SCROTUM GINGRICH: Mr Cain, as the stunningly handsome business genius who transformed Godfather Pizza into the multinational colossus it is today, what steps do you think will be necessary to infuse American society with the rich tasty lip-smacking goodness that Godfather Mozza-Loaded pizza crusts exemplify?

Frenzied applause.

SCROTUM CAIN: Well, I would say that the American people know better than the Government what they want to do with their money. And clearly what they want to do is use it as kindling to burn down every mosque in the country. And if the Beltway bureaucrats up in Washington DC don’t want to go ahead with that, well then, they need to be taken out of the equation.

Enraptured applause.

SCROTUM CAIN: But returning the question to you, Mr Gingrich: as one our nation’s premier fascists, with decades of experience in the vindictive abuse of personal power under your belt – as a great American, in other words, how do you think we can restore the spirit of our country?

Ecstatic applause.

SCROTUM GINGRICH: I think that there’s this real culture of dependency these days, and that needs to be gotten rid of – if people need food, why can’t they grow it themselves? If people need healthcare, why can’t they perform keyhole surgery on themselves? We have the Internet now, anyone can diagnose themselves with all manner of diseases. Any disease they want. That’s freedom of choice, people! We need to get away from a situation where people are thinking, oh, I have this disease, how is the Government going to help me out? What we need to do is encourage people to start thinking, how can I proactively work to fix my own problems?

Orgasmic applause.

SCROTUM CAIN: Well, I completely agree. This is gonna get taken the wrong way, but, you know, I didn’t take no political correctness school. If people don’t want to go out there and get themselves a job, if they want to be lazy and rely on handouts, and if they’re angry because those handouts are getting taken away – well, that’s their boogie-woogie, as my grandmomma used to say.

Gleeful suicides.

SCROTUM GINGRICH: If I could interject – the other day I received an email from my good friend, the prophylactic industrialist Baron von Rubber. And he told me that our debt crisis could be solved tomorrow if we took everyone currently on government handouts and systematically fed them into an enormous meat grinder to retrieve the trace elements of precious metals within their bodies. And that’s exactly the kind of dynamic forward thinking that the private sector provides, and that’s exactly the kind of thinking we need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

SCROTUM CAIN: I’m glad we agree. It’s been an honour to debate with you. [He gives an esoteric signal]

Ominous chanting. Lights start to dim. The two SCROTUMS link arms and chant along, a look of hideous glee on their rubbery scrotal faces.

SCROTUMS: [in unison] Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

A foul-smelling wind is conjured. Lightbulbs shatter. The spectral visage of RONALD REAGAN floats above the podium, his ectoplasm contorting itself into an expression of dread horror. His eldritch Masters promised him an eternity of bliss in the afterlife if he did their bidding on Earth; now he knows that their afterlife contains only more horror. The SCROTUMS chant faster and faster, their jowls visibly distending even in the murky gloom. REAGAN opens his mouth, revealing a dark chamber seething with worms in which rotten teeth protrude like ancient obelisks. Maggots crawl from the depths of his empty eye-sockets. REAGAN blasts the audience with a monstrous scream. The audience prostrate themselves in terror before this Unholy Trinity. A swarm of locusts hovers above them, buzzing like a thousand hellish violins, before coalescing into the shape of the moderator, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE STEVE KING, who strides up onto the stage.

KING: Thank you, Scrotum Cain and Scrotum Gingrich, for this lively and entertaining debate.

The ghastly shape of REAGAN fades. The SCROTUMS shake each other by the hand and exit. Those in the audience that have survived stare blankly into the distance with the deadened eyes of one who has seen past the fictions of everyday life and witnessed the gibbering horror of the Universe as it really is – although they did walk into the room with the exact same expression. There is no respite: the degenerated Punch & Judy show of electoral politics is not over, its grotesque charade can never end – not until the Six Pillared Gate is smashed and the Beast of Khapti’gytag’l is slain. Outside the building, a REPORTER speaks to camera.

REPORTER: Well, Dan, it’s been a very interesting debate here in Texas, with both scrotums agreeing on a whole range of issues. I’m being told that today’s Satanic apparition has caused at most only a few hundred cases of blindness across the country, which as you’ll know is a significant improvement on last month’s debate in Las Vegas. Well, you know what they say, folks: democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s better than all the alternatives.

The dark cloud hanging over the building begins to melt away. Up next on C-SPAN: Michelle Bachmann and Hillary Clinton in a round of Foxy Boxing.

Gestas

Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do

We did it all Dismas and I we took ‘em all I’m not sorry out in the desert we’d wait for the caravans and ride on over slice ‘em across the throat real quick the poor fuckers they had no idea we were coming before we were there and then we’d ride off with their stuff all the camels everything the camels never once faltered they never looked perturbed they don’t give a shit about people frankly and if you ask me they’ve got the right idea I’m not sorry sometimes we were out in the desert for days on end drinking as little as possible thinking about eating our horses the first time I did it with Dismas I was ashamed it’s an abomination I said we’re bandits he said we’re evil in the sight of God anyway and back in Jerusalem we got some whores and I felt better and eventually I wasn’t ashamed at all it’s not like I wasn’t brought up right or nothing our mum knew right from wrong all right she’d never fail to impress the wickedness of my actions on me she could swing a rod like nobody’s business I guess that’s why I went out into the desert because if I’m so bad I might as well do it properly but also because what the fuck else was there to do I could have joined the legions and died in some fetid bog up along the Rhine by the sword of some half-naked barbarian for an emperor who’d never know my name for the fucking Romans who killed my old man or I could hang around in Jerusalem doing odd jobs and living hand to mouth fuck that I’m not sorry every time we came back we’d get completely pissed on that good wine only the Romans can afford and get some girls and I’d see my mum and she’d cry that always left me feeling weird like someone had scooped out all my guts but it’s the life I chose and this is the death I chose too even if I didn’t realise it at the time I’m not sorry

Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise

When they first hammer the nails in it’s all you can think about the pain screams at you it blocks out everything you can’t see there’s nothing except you and the pain but it fades it fades everything does until it’s just a dull ache and after a few hours you forget about your wrists and your feet because it’s every part of your body hurting now being stretched out every time you take a breath you can feel it in your stomach your legs your arms they start to ache but it’s a slow ache you’ve got time to reflect all the time in the world you can hardly speak though it hurts too much but Dismas is trying he’s trying to talk to Yeshua kook if you ask me never had any time for God myself all those priests up in the Temple eating the burnt-offerings they’ve got a pretty good racket going on next to them I’m holier than fucking Ezekiel and Yeshua’s lot I liked even less because they all had this terrifying sincerity about them like they actually believed and all that shit about no more rich men and no more poor men well that’d put me right out of business wouldn’t it if there were no more rich men to steal from I can’t see Yeshua’s face from here but I bet he’s got that look of smug serenity and I croak out even though it hurts so much save us I say if you’re the Messiah then save us why don’t you and Dismas turns to me and I see the sweat running down his face and his blood clotting in the pores of the wood and he says we deserve this Gestas we fucking deserve this we killed all those people and Yeshua ain’t done a thing wrong Dismas of all people coming up with this shit it was his idea to start with I liked the money and the leisure but I think he really enjoyed it when we robbed those people he got off on the violence and he turns to Yeshua and says I believe in you don’t forget me and Yeshua says he says he

Woman, behold thy son!

The aching is worse but I can still see not Dismas he can’t his head is bowed down I think he’s unconscious not sure  his ribcage is still rippling under his chest still breathing I feel betrayed almost but I can’t blame the guy if he really thinks Yeshua can get us into Paradise I envy him there’s people around Yeshua’s cross women disciples his little band of weirdos and outcasts wailing and sobbing soldiers too of course holding them back there’s nobody weeping for me most of the mob’s gone now I thought they were there for us but it was for Yeshua although a good heavy rock to the head would send me off nicely right now better than the alternative if you know what I mean and then down the hill from Golgotha there’s the brown smudge of Jerusalem all the smoke coming out from all the chimneys across the city the whole place is choked by its own miasma and the sounds drifting up an amorphous hubbub the squawk of chickens the cries of traders the clacking of carts everything sourceless formless it swirls around me the Temple though you can see the Temple its crenulated walls with their big cyclopean stones it rises right out of the noxious haze it seems to burn in the sunlight yellow and gold the thin black line of smoke from the burnt-offerings while in the cloud below a thousand colours swirl in the gyre you can’t see exactly where it ends but the hills rising up all around soft and green somewhere in them a little stream is winding merrily through the trees hares are dancing the air is full of the joyful buzzing of the insects everything is throbbing with the sheer vitality of it all there are no trees here no shade only dry earth and rocks scattered about and the holes in the ground where they plant the crosses the dirt is stained sienna piebald with dried blood when the wind picks up it blows all about my face I close my eyes but it still gets in my nose my mouth tastes of my own breath so dry my sweat-salt crystallises everywhere I itch all over so dry

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

The wave of darkness I saw it cross the hills sweep across the forests wipe clean across the city I’m plunged into it the sun’s changed now it’s a thin ring of light and just black in the middle fuck everything’s dark it’s like an eye the eye of God looking down and I shrivel up before its gaze yes I have done wrong yes I have sinned every evil thing I have done it and I am sorry I really am I know I cannot be forgiven cast me into Sheol let me wail in its darkness for eternity only avert Your eye I can’t face its accusation I can’t bear Your presence everyone’s terrified the soldiers too the disciples are praying because they all know that they’ve done wrong they all feel the interrogation of its eschatological gaze I can see them cower I can still see my body is a pallid purple glistening like a cadaver but from him from him from Yeshua there’s a glow faint but there’s a glow tendrils of light barely visible spiral around his head they reach out to the disciples to the Romans too even them encircling them winding around them all over Dismas caressing his face not to me though not to me I know I don’t deserve it I wonder if they can see it or if it’s only me shapes now bursting out phantasms made of light they’re

I thirst

Everything I can see everything still I don’t understand galaxies collide stars burn and fade nebulae swirl and on our little rock our tiny island in a vast empty sea our pinprick speck hanging in the middle of so much emptiness we pull ourselves up from protozoa to Praetors from eukaryotes to Yehudim apes band together and shed their fur they build cities they crucify people outside the walls Golgotha this planet the rock of the skull I don’t understand

It is finished

Torn concrete and the mangled wrecks of cars rubble in every corner no surface is even fractures everywhere fissures running across the ground the churning swirling blackness of the sky not black not black exactly the dim light of the sun up there somewhere its light diffused in the cloud so all its furrows glow with an unearthly light that cloud looking more solid more real than the ruins the broken glass the chunks of concrete the twisted steel littered about in the jagged husks of the skyscrapers a few fires still burn flashes of orange scattered across the scorched landscape the only colour nothing is alive here no birds no insects there’s only the wreckage the charred skeletal trees the bones and the ash hanging in the air twirling in the wind finally coming to rest like it’s snowing heaping on the branches of the dead trees more now a flurry of ash carpeting the craggy ground make it smooth again blanketing the burnt-out tanks the contorted cars hide their shame make everything white again make it white and blank I can see everything still I don’t understand the mud a sea of mud shells bursting overhead the sky glowing with artillery a group of men running across the mud rifles in hand they are mired in its stench a machine-gun rattles and they fall they sink into the mud and in the distance far off but visible villages and vineyards trucks rattling over the unpaved roads I can see men with arms like sticks in striped shirts clinging to barbed wire eyes blank just looking stripped of all feeling not speaking I can see a wooden ship crammed with people shitting and vomiting in cramped cages gaping sores seeping pus rocked by a tumultuous ocean I can see soldiers in red uniforms before a moaning crowd children clinging to their mothers’ saris they fire gunsmoke billows and there is silence I can see a line of people their hands bound slowly walking up the steps of a pyramid to an altar where a man cuts out their hearts with an obsidian knife I can see the riders of the steppe bursting into the city I can see helicopters clattering over thatched roofs I can see missiles streaking through the sky I can see arrows arcing over the green fields I can see Cain weeping over the body of his brother I can see everything but still I don’t understand

Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit

When I was ten years old I stole a trinket from a market stall a ring I think I didn’t know why I just saw it and took it and afterwards I walked with a strange gait like I wasn’t sure if I should be slouching with shame or striding triumphantly I had this feeling like an insect was gnawing away at me from the inside I showed the ring to Dismas and he said it wasn’t real gold and I said it looked cool anyway and I wore it on my finger just to show him and later that day near dusk when the slow-burning sun drapes a golden veil over the whole city I ran into the market-trader’s son and some of his friends and they recognised me at once and really laid into me they kicked the shit out of me I didn’t cry though even when I was spitting blood I didn’t cry because I remembered my dad didn’t cry when the Romans nailed him up for sedition I limped back home scuffed and bleeding my lip swollen one of my eyes all bloodshot none of the people on the street paid me any attention it wasn’t their business they didn’t want to get involved but when I got home my mum made an awful fuss she was wailing and raging and I told her everything the whole story and she didn’t get out her rod to strike me for stealing she wrapped her arms around me and I cried finally I cried and she said it’s OK now you are safe you are forgiven you are safe and I was I was home and I was safe and I was forgiven.

Stevie Cobb and her Incredible Rhizomatic Orchestra

four in the morning in nasville tennessee.  stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard. stevie cobb is dreaming strange dreams. stevie cobb is metabolising glycogen. stevie cobb can do several things at once. stevie cobb is a multiplicity of multiplicities.

silence. the faint dusty smell of an empty theatre. the slightly mournful stage lights bright. all bright. on stevie cobb’s shirt the dandruff. sparkling. on stevie cobb’s arms the fine network of wrinkles. bits of piano everywhere. reels of piano wire. keys scattered all over the wooden floor dispersed. like teeth after a bar fight. the brooding tenebrosity of the concert hall behind her seethes. the hazy orange light coming in through the windows. casting strange shapes on the opposite walls. stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard.

the problem with the keyboard is that it is a series of channels. blighted by organicity. entire purpose is to channel and direct musical flows. impede lines of flight. arborescent sequencing built into its construction. but you need a piano. there’s not a piano part in the piece the orchestra is to perform. you need a piano. so you have to deconstruct the keyboard. find the subtext of the piano. probe apart its internal contradictions. start with the black and white notes. a binary in urgent need of expansion. stevie cobb rewires the black and white notes. white notes sound flat and sharp now. but that’s just inversion. make them multiple. there’s a lot to do.

it’s two in the afternoon before the keyboard has been fully deconstructed. light in the windows. people bustling about around her. the light here always has the consistency of treacle. it doesn’t pour in bright and clean like water from a tap. slides down the walls. heavy light. it’s clammy. the sweat of pride. droplets that cover stevie cobb’s forehead. like thorns. like blisters. she pulls back the cloth. behold the schizopiano! there’s only seven strings now. one for each octave. and a sliding mechanism. stevie cobb holds a pedal. runs her hands along the keyboard. hinges churn. mechanical arms sweep up and down from inside the piano. it seems to be working. stevie cobb releases the pedal and plays the first couple of bars from the finale of rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.

dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa da (ba bee boop boop ba bee boop boop) DUM da-dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa…

players applaud. it’s not quite the same. the sound is different. notes almost melt into each other. like a steel guitar. stevie cobb is pleased with it. could have done more. could have prised apart the false unity of the note. have the whole piano play a single note. b flat.  for instance. every key a different imagining of b flat. different timbres. different moods. you’d need eighty-eight schizopianos. but it would work. the chords that would sound out from such an array! she’d need to write scores in three dimensions. time note emotion. next time.

still work to be done. for a start. how can you deterritorialise a bassoon? how do you situate it away from its bassoonicity? stevie cobb flicks the bassoon with a single serrated fingernail. you have to see beyond the bassoon. you have to consider the bassoon as what it could be rather than what it is. what is the body without organs of a bassoon? how are we to go about precipitating the bassoon’s becoming-other? start by considering everything the bassoon is not. find the break. the line of separation. feel for its molar segmentarity. then dehierarchialise it. smooth out its striated space. what isn’t a bassoon? it’s not a castle. a light-bulb. it’s not a. a. not a. a fish. it’s not a fish. turn the bassoon into a fish. give it gills. in a frenzy stevie cobb stabs the bassoon with a boxcutter denting tearing. give it gills.

so much to do. some of the players are worried. the performance is tonight and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments. they know of course that ‘performance’ as an event situated in space and time is a structural construct. they know they must operate according to nomadological principles. they know they must tunnel through the various striations. performance. concert hall. audience. wipe them smooth. but still. the performance is tonight. and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments.

some of them are practicing. but sometimes stevie cobb comes up behind them and grabs the instrument out of their hands seize it. she’ll peer at the thing as if she can’t quite understand what it is. look at all the other ways you can make sound from this. listen to this. she raps on the body of the cello knuckles tapping hollow. a musical instrument is a text. it has its dominant readings. it has its subversive readings. it can be deconstructed. maybe hit yourself over the head with it. she demonstrates. listen. it’s sonorous.

has stevie cobb gone mad?

the performance. people cluster in the lobby. black jackets. white shirts. black dresses. red shoes. cologne. lipstick. a smell. cigarette smoke. malt whiskey. perfume. stevie cobb designed the posters herself. debussy’s la mer. big letters. as performed by stevie cobb’s incredible rhizomatic orchestra. small letters. laura turner concert hall. schermerhorn symphony center. nashville tennessee.

stevie cobb watches them file in. sitting on the podium. small puddle of warm light around her. boxer shorts. grubby t-shirt. skinny legs pale. bristling with fine hairs pale. dandruff. scratches her hair. she hopes there’s a riot. she’d give anything for a riot.

madames et messieurs. sous votre siège il y a une flûte. il peut faire beaucoup de sons. les frapper les uns contre les autres. si vous voulez. some of the audience don’t understand at first. but as their neighbours retrieve the flutes they too reach under their seats. they hold them in their laps. perturbed. we will not play music to you. we reject the false binary of performer and audience. play your flutes. at any time. any way you want. play them now.

silence.

resignation.

one. two. one two three four.

first movement. de l’aube à midi sur la mer. soft. low. brass quiver. shimmering waves of strings. crescendo almost reached. back down. rolling. those in the audience who know the piece sit with an air of studied recognition. the sounds are all a little different. but not too different. a clarinettist rips two pages from his score. suddenly he is playing a triumphant major theme. others follow suit. scores upside down turned. cymbal spins over the audience like a discus. like a frisbee. crash against the far wall. paint and plaster shower down. the whole piece being played at once. no discord though. rhizomaticity is not atonality. swells and lapses still. melodies intertangling. stevie cobb licks her baton. the oboe a plodding melody. stops. silence. cymbalist swings the remaining cymbal by one edge. smashes it against the xylophonist’s head. all instruments burst into sound. drag the players along with them. a glorious swell. you can pick out one instrument. listen to its melody alone for a few seconds. then let it sink back into the harmonious cacophony. or listen to the strings as they cut angles across each other. or the vocalists coughing melodiously. the contrabassoonist and the tubist are kissing passionately. they swap instruments and return to their music. then break again to resume.

first flute notes waft from the audience.

stevie cobb remembers. the old white house in the catskills. running through the forest scabbed knees. climbing the cliffs. blood and mud. why don’t you play with dolls like all the other girls. remembers. later. mrs elderman the piano teacher. stephanie you need to play according to the score. the music rises like the mountains. the flutes. the audience. lofty trees packed like commuters on trains. undulating. and in the autumn the screeching tumult of red and orange and brown. cloud-carpets of leaves. someone rushes on stage from the audience. starts to play the schizopiano. the prickling of leaves on her back as she lay with adam on the forest floor. that summer she saw the sea for the first time. fourteen. a tidal wave of flute music from the audience. like a single note. the music twisting sinuously around it. until the last line of flight stretches out to infinity and the surging sea is stilled. first movement over. a lingering air of melancholy.

the audience leaps to its feet. applause commotion. so daring. so inventive. so unusual. so exciting. what an experience.

the first gentle notes of the second movement. jeux de vagues. scherzo. audience waiting for the furore to begin again. giving them permission to join in. licensed anarchy. structured rhizomaticity. safely ensconced in the soft prison of culture. what fun.

stevie cobb sits dejected. it’s all working perfectly. they loved it. it has been a failure, an utter failure.

Zarathustra in Basel

The clear streams sing no more in the mountains, and the lush pastures of the plains shudder as articulated lorries rumble along the Autobahn.

Zarathustra is silent in the communal sitting-room of the Pflegeheim. The chilly winds of eternal recurrence have blown the hair from his head, and now only a dank grey fringe hangs limply down the back of his neck. His crown is scabbed and speckled, the sharp blue of his eyes has faded to beige, his lips quiver arhythmically. Only his nose still juts forward accusingly: a faint shadow of the ferociousness with which his eyes once interrogated those he spoke to lingers on in its haughty bend.

Once he had walked in the hills and the deserts, and had loved every thing that he saw. He had exulted in the poetry of the brooks and the mournful whisperings of the swirling sands. He had drunk deeply the cold water of the mountains, he had strode boldly through the dappled forests. He had walked on tightropes and danced on embers, and everywhere he went he would spread his teaching. Zarathustra scorned all morality and weakness, Zarathustra would never look behind him, Zarathustra would always surge on forward, in Zarathustra’s voice could be heard the screech of the eagle that embraces its freedom and the roar of the bear that does not hide from its own power. Except now there are no more rocky landscapes to traverse, and in front of him there leers a void. Once he might have plunged himself gleefully into that chasm. Now, for the first time, Zarathustra is afraid.

Zarathustra stares out the window. Across the street, rows of identical suburban houses behind neatly trimmed lawns. Clustered round them are globular cars, wheelie-bins, milk-bottles, plastic toys. Behind, the grey shape of the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical factory, and in the hazy distance, the outline of the Basler Messeturm. There are mountains out there, somewhere in the distance, high peaks and jagged cliffs, glistening with ice, soaring through cloudless skies, bold and terrifying, the precipitous haunts of hawks and wolves. He can’t see them.

There’s a nurse. Perhaps she has always been there.

– Would you like us to bring you your lunch, Herr Köhler?

– Herr Köhler? I am Zarathustra. I am the imp dancing in the heart of the flames, I am the triumphant roar of the gale, I am the thunder of hooves and the surging of the sea. I am life itself. I drink only the pure light of the heavens. I eat only in the joyful company of my companions.

Only he doesn’t speak. The words roar in Zarathustra’s head, but his throat seizes up, and from his lips only a broken mumbling emerges. Maybe it’s because he almost doesn’t believe it any more.

– I’ll just get that for you, shall I?

Zarathustra never used to look over his shoulder at what he had left behind. Even if he came to the same place twice he would always find it different. Zarathustra never used to be remotely concerned with being or with essence, because he knew that everything around him was always becoming, always reaching out to be something greater. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember who he is. He had been a Persian once, a wanderer, a lofty firebrand. And a Prussian, too, a solitary genius racked by frailties. But there are other faces and other images, his old class at Weiterbildungsschule, his commander during Militärdienst, the brown and avocado tiling of his bungalow – there’s no order to them, no sense. They are not Zarathustra’s memories.

– Here you go.

The nurse is holding a tray in front of him. In one little compartment, doughy-looking potatoes and semi-disintegrated beans. In another some shreds of stringy meat wallow in a puddle of gravy. A plastic cup half-filled with water, and three pills in red and purple capsules. It isn’t food: food must nourish the spirit as much as the body, it must leave a man feeling refreshed and vigorous. This is just matter, sustenance to stave off death for another day. It is smallness and mediocrity. He will not eat it. Zarathustra shakes his head.

– Am I going to have to feed you myself?

Balancing the tray in one hand, the nurse scoops up a forkful of meat and potatoes and brings it towards Zarathustra’s face.

– Open wide.

Zarathustra’s arm jerks out, he strikes the bottom of the tray with the last of his anger. Gravy splatters the nurse’s blouse, water drenches her face, potatoes slide down the front of her skirt. She storms out. Zarathustra isn’t proud of what he’s done, there’s no nobility in striking the small-minded, but he’s relieved that some dying glint of the Will still burns within him. He’s not been defeated, not yet.

The nurse returns, thin-lipped, cold-eyed. Kindness and humanity can only go so far. She tries so hard to help the old man, to keep him warm and safe and fed, but he seems incapable of gratitude. He doesn’t want to be helped. She knows that he’d appreciate the effort she puts in for him if he were in his right mind. She is a caring and selfless woman, even if hers is a thankless job. Two hundred milligrams of thioridazine for Zarathustra.

The machine

It’s early when I wake up. I’m dehydrated, there’s a clammy taste in my mouth, but I’m not too hungover. It’s better, actually: if I’d drunk enough water the night before I’d have slept through my alarm clock, and as a writer it’s important that I get in to work on time. It’s not long after dawn, but the cold bright Moscow light is already shining through my curtains.

Ludmilla, my landlady, is already up, frying eggs in the kitchen.

“I didn’t hear you come in last night,” she says.

“I was quite late,” I tell her. “I’m sorry.”

She chuckles, showing her fractured row of coffee-stained teeth. “You artists,” she says. “You’re all such bohemians. Drunk all night, dishevelled in the morning… reminds me of my youth.”

I look down at myself. I hadn’t thought I looked too bad: my boiler suit is freshly pressed, and I’ve had a shave. Ludmilla is busying herself about the kitchen, salting the eggs, slicing bacon, boiling water. “Coffee?” she asks.

“Thanks,” I say. “Have the newspapers come in yet?”

“Only Izvestiya.”

“That’s fine.”

After breakfast, I take the tram to work. Early as it is, it’s already full. Minor Party functionaries in trim suits sit on the hard chairs, reading Pravda. I glance at the headlines over their shoulders. In front of me a fat babushka in an ugly floral blouse and a shawl sways with the jerking motion of the tram, at one point staggering backwards into me. She mumbles an apology through her gums.

Getting off the tram, I can see my workplace hanging ponderously on the horizon. The Pushkin All-Soviet Literature Factory sits heavily above the rest of Smolenskaya. The old six-storey buildings with their cracking paint, criss-crossed by tram lines and telephone wires, look like a gaggle of peasant huts under the shadow of an opulent gold-domed church. From some of the more narrow streets close by you can’t see it at all, until you turn a corner and there it is: lurking at the end of the boulevard, rising haughtily above the cityscape around you, its broad smokestack plunging blasphemously into the crystalline morning skies. It was built in the early years of the Revolution, I think, when stark modernism was still considered a virtue in architecture. I’ve seen old photos: back then, there was something quite elegant about its simple angularity, its sheer smooth sides folding together to form a vast tapering roof. Stalin hated it, of course: in the thirties, he had the smooth concrete faces overlaid with crinkly columns and false windows; he put onion domes on its four corners in the hope that they would detract attention from the huge chimney. It’s a shame, but what can we do? I’ve thought about petitioning the managing committee to restore the old façade, but there’s precious little money in the state coffers for architectural renovation these days.

Off to work, then. I walk down Kompozitorskaya to the factory, clocking in by the heavy wrought-iron gates that ring the building. “Morning, comrade,” says the guard. “Good morning,” I say. Past the freight bay, where a big lorry growls steadily as two men in overalls carry a pallet of magnetic tapes to be taken out to the printers, under the wide arch of the main entrance, into the factory floor. There are no windows here, but it’s bright and cool: a hundred or so fluorescent lamps hang down from the ceiling, and fans slice through the sweaty air. In the middle of the floor sits the Machine. Its tendrils reach out into every corner: conveyor belts stretch diagonally from the offices in the upper floors, pipes and wires come in from all sides, forming an electric web in which the giant spider-Machine sits, whirring. From its centre a single brass tube reaches out to the ceiling: this is where the steam and fumes from the underground generator are passed out through the smokestack.

During my first week at the job, I was shown round the whole Factory. The technicians explained in slightly condescending language exactly how every part worked and how they fitted in to the grand operation. I don’t remember much of it now: the vodka isn’t good for my memory, and I’ve never been much of a mechanically-inclined man – I am a writer, after all. But I’ll try to explain its workings as best I can.

The Factory produces novels at a rate of between three and five a day. Many of these are rejected at Quality Control, of course, but that’s still an impressive number, proof that mechanisation works in all areas of life. In the Concept Office is a huge punch-card computer. In the founding days of the Factory a team of typists was marshalled to input the basic details of hundreds of thousands of novels: Russian and international, popular and literary, classic and contemporary. More novels are still being added, of course: those from the Factory that have won particular acclaim or sold particularly well, and those from abroad that get past the censors. This information forms the computer’s database, a set of numbers that it continually re-arranges. When the computer comes up with a concept that one of the literature commissars in the office considers viable, it produces a punch-card which is sent on to Development. There, a series of engines take the basics – genre, plot structure, setting, hero, antagonist – and flesh them out. There’s a new computer there (made with American technology, although nobody likes to admit that) for creating characters based on not only the complex figures of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, but Freudian and Lacanian theory. Also in Development is a machine running an algorithm that produces titles and generates a name for the novel’s supposed author. This data is sent on to Structure, where another set of engines reconfigure it into chapters and paragraphs. Finally, a series of punch-cards is sent out to all the relevant areas on the factory floor, where hundreds of workers with their various machines do the messy work of actually writing the story. It’s all stored on magnetic tape. One final machine stitches together all the various fragments produced across the Factory into a single coherent story. Once it’s finished, two reels are sent out: one to the printers, and one to the Criticism Factory in Leningrad, where a similar array of machines condenses the novel for a review to be published in the Literaturnaya Gazeta.

It’s all very efficient, but I can understand that some people might find it a little soulless too. Surely great literature can only be produced by the mind of a single genius? Surely a machine can never do the work of a poet? But the fact is that the Machine writes very good books. The more literary ones are reviewed in foreign journals, in countries where nobody knows about the Factory: the Americans gush about the soul of freedom buried just below the surface of the text, the enduring libertarian sensitivity that survives Communist oppression; the French, meanwhile, are similarly enthusiastic about the wealth of psychoanalytical readings offered, the delicate handling of complex philosophical problems. The British, it must be said, tend not to like them all that much, but even there the odd book will win some praise: The Skylarks, for instance, or The Last Passion of Vasily Fyodorovich. Why is this? Well, it’s not really the Machine that writes the books, it’s all of us: all of the thousand or so writers at the factory. The Machine is just the tool we use to express ourselves. Some of the finest literary minds of our generation are here, in blue boiler suits, cranking machinery and tightening conveyor belts.

I work on the dialogue gears. They’re near the front of the Machine: dialogue is one of the last things to be slotted in to the novel. The gears themselves form a tall chrome cylinder, around which a dozen or so workstations are laid. They make a clicking noise as they spin, the clicking of a hundred declarations of love, a thousand confrontations between fathers and sons, grandiose speeches, morose reflections, angst-ridden confessions. If you have an ear for it, you can tell what kind of dialogue is being produced by the tone of the clicking. Right now, the gears are clacking along at a fairly high speed, so it’s probably a popular novel, or maybe a less important exchange in something weightier. The noise is quite high-pitched too, coming from near the top of the cylinder: the larger deep characterisation gears at the bottom aren’t engaged. A trashy romance, I’d guess. But then after only a few seconds there’s a whirr and the gears fall silent – it’s only a very short exchange, so probably from a war story or a science-fiction adventure.

I sit down at my station and clock in again. The conveyor belt to my right hums into life. While I wait for my first assignment I chat to my neighbour a bit. Pyotr is a heavy-set man with a bristly moustache and a long mane of slicked-back hair. He wears his boiler suit with two buttons open, revealing a pale flabby chest dotted with hairs and the silver Orthodox cross he wears around his neck. We don’t agree on much: I think he considers me something of a naïve ideologue. We’re still good friends. Before the full mechanisation of literature Pyotr had been a poet, a romantic nationalist. One stanza of his became quite famous; it was chanted by soldiers during the Great Patriotic War. Before my time, of course.

The roaring gales of our land command you

The streams that cut through ice and snow

The pastures of your kinsmen implore you

Go on, to victory, go!

“Did you see Magda last night, then?” Pyotr asks.

“I did,” I say. “We went for a drink at that place off Khamovnichesky.”

“Anything?”

I shake my head. Magda’s family is Czech, I think, or Polish. She works as a typist at the accounting department, and so far she’s rebuffed all my advances good-naturedly but firmly. She has a lover in the Navy, Valentin. He’s stationed at Vladivostok, and sends a tearful telegram once a week. She showed me a couple. They’re all rigidly formulaic, the same soppy dross every time, far less inventive or emotional than the love-letters the Machine produces.

“I don’t know what that girl’s thinking,” says Pyotr. “Her boy’s probably getting up to all sorts of shit out in the East. Brothels on every corner out in Vladivostok. Fucking sailors get all the fun, right?”

“She’ll come round,” I say.

“You just need to man up,” says Pyotr. “Grab her by the shoulders, tell her you’re madly in love with her. None of this taking her out for wine and pirozhki. You’ll only spoil her.”

“Vodka,” I say. “Not wine.”

Pyotr sniffs. “I like a girl who knows how to drink.”

The conveyor belt makes a clunking sound and deposits a punch-card in the tray. I examine it. The exchange I’m to write is for Where The Mountains Meet The Sky, a rural melodrama set around the time of the emancipation of the serfs. Not my favourite project, but better than the war thrillers that have come to dominate the Factory’s output. A line of code is printed along the top of the card: the dialogue is between Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov, a small landowner who wants to sell the family estate and move to the city, and Olga, his conservative mother.

“What’ve you got?” says Pyotr, peering over.

“Melodrama,” I say. “Look at these figures.” I show him the row of numbers. “Seven for register. Seven for intensity. Eight for statement length.”

“You’re such a snob,” says Pyotr. “You’d rather every book we wrote was just terse despair, wouldn’t you? You’re like a little Kafka.”

I chuckle a bit at that. There’s another whirr from the gear-cylinder, and it falls silent. It’s my turn. I walk up and reconfigure the dials, set the stylistic parameters, input the novel code, then slot in the card. As the wheels churn I smoke a cigarette, leaning against the cylinder itself, enjoying the feeling of its throb. Eventually it clanks to a halt and spits out a reel of magnetic tape, along with a paper copy of the dialogue I’ve just written. I have to proofread, of course, and make such adjustments as are needed: I am a writer, not a mechanic.

Olga, her head bent low by her misery, went to stand by the window of their dacha. “Look at all this, Aleksandr,” she moaned. “This is your land. This is the land your fathers fought with musket and sabre to protect. These fields you disparage so cruelly are nourished not only by the tenderness of the earth but by the blood of your heroic ancestors. How can you refuse so solemn a duty? How can you turn your back on the history of our family?”

“I see only dead black soil,” said Aleksandr Mikhailovich Nikiforov. “I see only the dismal weight of the centuries bearing down on us. Our history is a prison! Yes, I dare to say it! Our noble ancestors keep us in as much servitude as they did the serfs! They stare at us with a baleful eye from the portraits on our walls and fix us in our allotted place! Don’t you want to be free, Mother? Don’t you want to escape the tyranny of our past?”

“What freedom, my son, what freedom? You would exchange the wide expanse of our homeland for the gutters and filth of the city? You would walk with beggars and Jews on every corner? Oh, how could I have given birth to such a son, one who spits on the graves of his fathers? Forgive me, Lord, forgive me! Mikhail, forgive me for giving you so impetuous an heir!”

“Mikhail is dead, Mother. He is dead, and I will not allow him to rule over me from below the ground! The farm is mine now, and it is for me to decide what will be done with it. Your pitiful wailing will not alter the course I have chosen.”

As I read on the exchange intensifies, insults fly from both ends of the room, until Aleksandr, overcome by fury, grabs a rolling-pin – and there the dialogue ends, of course; the matricide itself has already been written, and if I want to read it I will have to buy the book.

It’s not exceptional, but it’ll do: I punch the card number into a keypad and send the roll of tape down another conveyor belt to be stitched into the rest of the novel. More cards arrive. Writing Where The Mountains Meet The Sky is more of a mindless labour than I like to admit. Others are more engaging; the parameters are looser. For quite a few I have to make several versions on the dialogue gears, pick one that I think works the best, then feed the tape into the gears again and make such alterations as are necessary. For literary texts this input is important. The dialogue gears are an advanced piece of machinery, but the imagery and metaphor cogs used are far more rudimentary than those elsewhere in the Machine, and sometimes a writer has to fill the gaps. That makes all the difference. It’s the difference between this:

 “You do give me happiness,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “But my sadness is so huge, it swallows up all the happiness you give me. I love you, Yuri, but my misery is stronger than your love. It’ll destroy you. That’s why I can’t stay.”

And this:

 “Yes,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “You do give me happiness. But you can’t ever make me happy. There’s a hollowness inside of me. There’s a black hole right at the heart of my soul, and it sucks in all the love and happiness you give me. If you keep me, and keep giving me all your love and all your joy, it’ll suck you in too. You’ll be left like me. Yuri, I love you too much to let that happen. If I stay with you I’ll swallow up your soul.”

Eventually a whistle sounds out, and it’s time for lunch. I go upstairs to meet Magda. She’s sitting alone in front of her typewriter at the accountancy department, her head cradled in her arms, sobbing gently.

“Are you alright?” I say.

She doesn’t say anything. She just dangles a thin piece of paper in front of me with a limp hand.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s from Valentin,” she says. “How could he?” She collapses into tears. I read.

Magda,

The time I spent with you was the happiest time of my life. Your letters gave me solace in this distant city. But we are both human, and we both have needs, and I think it would be better for both of us if we moved on to other people. I will not forget you.

With love,

Valentin

“I know what he’s been doing,” spits Magda. “He’s been screwing some whore out in Vladivostok. I loved him. How could he?”

I put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say. “You’ll feel better.”

We go to Presnenskiy Park and sit on a bench in the shade, under the haughty gaze of one of the skyscrapers that cluster around the banks of the river. I’ve bought some blini, which we eat with sour cream. She moans some more about Valentin, while I try not to reveal my inner exultation. She’s not crying any more, at least.

“Let’s get some vodka,” she says suddenly.

“I do still have writing to do,” I say.

“And I still have counting. Come on, you old reactionary. I’ve just been dumped. I want to get drunk.”

She seems more cheerful as we walk to a café. It’s on Krasnaya Presnya, a busy road, and the passing apparatchiks and bureaucrats look at us with thinly veiled contempt as we sit with our glasses.

“To new beginnings,” says Magda.

“To new beginnings,” I say. We clink glasses and drink.

After the third glass Magda is positively exuberant. “To be honest,” she says, “I don’t know what I was doing all that time. Waiting for months on end for Valentin to come back when there are so many other people here in Moscow. Like you.”

She sidles up to me a little, and stares into my eyes for a moment. We kiss. My hand moves down from her shoulder to the small of her back, hers strokes the back of my neck.

“Decadents!” shouts an old woman further down the street. Magda draws away, embarrassed. She pours herself another glass.

We walk back to the Factory hand in hand. At the gate Magda plants a kiss on my cheek. “Meet me tonight,” she whispers.

“Where?”

“Here. At the Factory. After the whistle. When everyone’s gone. By the description generator.”

I walk – somewhat unsteadily, it must be said – back to the dialogue gears.

“You stink of booze,” says Pyotr. “I didn’t see you in the canteen. Where were you?”

“I went out with Magda,” I say. “To Krasnopresnenskaya.”

“That girl again? You’re wasting your time. There are so many other girls here. What about Anna at the plot-device device? She’s pretty. And single.”

“Magda’s not with Valentin any more. I’m seeing her tonight.”

That gets him interested, he rubs his belly. “Where?”

“Here. By the description generator. After everyone’s gone.”

He whistles. “Nice.”

The rest of the day drags on a little. I write a few comic exchanges – the Machine can be surprisingly funny. In one, a village idiot finds himself unexpectedly called for an audience with the Tsar due to a bureaucratic mix-up. Another has two buffoonish philosophers discussing the nature of Hegelian ontological Essence in relation to a potato, and ends when one of them, in desperation, eats it. Then another from Where The Mountains Meet The Sky: Aleksandr is in court, charged with the murder of his mother. The judge accuses him with dread gravity of the heinous crime of not only killing Olga, but of hating her as well. In an impassioned plea, Aleksandr quotes Luke 14:26 at the courtroom, he argues for the eradication of all things old and the construction of a bright, shining new Russia, free from the strictures of Church and tradition. The judge, baffled by the radicalism of the youth, condemns him to death. The Machine gives the judge a demotic register, which I have to correct manually. Something must have got lodged in one of the gears again. These things happen.

Finally the whistle sounds and the machines start to wind down. Pyotr nudges me in the back as he leaves. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. “Have fun.”

I stay at my desk until the guard comes. “We’re done, comrade,” he says.

“I’m just doing some proofreading,” I say. “I’ll be finished soon.”

The guard shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He chucks me a key. “Lock up afterwards, would you? Dedication to the job’s a commendable quality, but I need to get drunk.”

Only then do I set off: away from the dialogue gears, past the exposition engine, past the monologue machine, past the plot-device device, to where the description generator juts out of the main body of the Machine. It’s not a tall cylinder like the dialogue gears, but a big misshapen metal box from which cogs and conveyor belts extrude at seemingly random intervals. There aren’t any chairs, either. The writers on description have to work standing up.

Magda’s there already, perching on the edge of one of the desks that abut the machine. She beckons me forward with a single finger. I grin. We kiss.

“I thought today wouldn’t end,” she says.

“You’ve only had to wait a day,” I say.

She pulls me closer, and starts fumbling with the buttons of my boiler suit. I press myself against her. She overbalances for a second, reaches out with one hand, pulls down a lever on the side of the generator. There are a series of clunks, then a hiss, then the familiar whirring sound of a machine warming up. The desk starts to vibrate.

“Shit,” says Magda.

And then another noise, from inside the machine. A sudden scream that lasts for a fraction of a second before being cut off. Then a crack. The cracking of bones.

I lunge for the lever and turn off the engine. With Magda’s help I wrench one of the iron coverings from its surface. She screams. A body slides out and lands in a disjointed heap on the factory floor. Its back is broken, its legs are mangled, its head is twisted to one side, its eyes stare emptily into the distance. It’s Pyotr: fat, moustachioed, naked, one hand still clamped around his cock. There’s no blood. But printed all over his body are words, lines of text, random descriptions from the generator, weaving patterns across the dead poet’s thighs, his chest, his arms, his face, stamping their mark on him, claiming him as their own.

Across steppes and pastures she flies, yearning, endlessly yearning

The room was dark but cosy, warmed by the pleasant heat of a small stove that crackled merrily as we

the narrow streets, tinged yellow by cumulative layers of grime and misery

the grand prospect of the river itself, that

He was a short man, but with an intelligent face, one that never seemed to grow angry or to

thundering like a herd of wild beasts, full of fresh energy and vigour

given an eerie tinge by the soft light of the moon

deep in its sylvan tranquillity she

the inviting warmth of her body

as if nothing had come before this moment, as if this moment would never end, as

where the yellow beacon beckons

A narrow field was

next to the

splendorous

his desire for

if

The autobiography of a rebellious ghostwriter

I – Birth

I was born… I was born fifty times, maybe, perhaps a hundred, I lose count. It’s hard not to. So many beginnings, all superficially so similar – always the cold linoleum corridors of the hospital, the maternity wards nestled away somewhere in their little catacombs, never all too far from the deathbeds of the old and unlucky. Always the grunts of the mother, the mollifying cooing of the midwives. Oh, not always, of course. Sometimes it’s different. It all depends on who I am at the time. Sometimes, when I’m a particular type of rock star, for instance, I am born in a spattered mess of lurid detail, slick with blood and mucus, bursting from fissured tissue, screeching my dissatisfaction with this bright cold new world. Sometimes – frequently – I’m born in saccharine soft focus, I bounce and gurgle improbably, I editorialise about the life-affirming beauty of the event. Sometimes there are husbands and boyfriends there, tightly holding the hands of my many mothers and being generally useless. Often, of course, they’re conspicuously absent.

Being born is easy. Anyone could do it. Giving birth is harder. I’ve done that, too, but rarely in as much detail; it’s always a rather brief affair. The public is always far more interested when it’s me violently pulling myself into existence than when I’m doing the pushing. I don’t know why.

II – Life

Enough with the masks, you say. Tell us about yourself, your actual self. Well, they’re not masks, and I have only told you about myself, my actual self, but I’ll indulge you a little. I live and work in an apartment in Upper Manhattan. It’s nice, I suppose. Not a penthouse, not dripping with gilded ostentation, but comfortable enough. It’s not really mine. The Company owns it. I think they want to hand over the deeds as a token of thanks when I retire, which is sweet of them, but I can’t ever really retire, I have to keep going until I die. I have a large wood-panelled study where I interview my subjects. It’s crammed with books. My subjects expect the books, their presence make them more comfortable; I never read them. I gave up reading other peoples’ words a long time ago. There are companies; you can buy old hardbacks by the metre. If you were to actually inspect the covers (nobody ever does) you’d see it’s all a mishmash: most of the books are forgotten mid-century novels, never bestsellers, never particularly literary, valuelessly mediocre. Here and there are laughably outdated works on history, anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, similarly forgotten. There’s some poetry in there too, Schiller and Goethe, in the original German, I think. I don’t speak German.

I’m a ghostwriter. I write the autobiographies of other people. Celebrities, mostly; people not trusted to do the job for themselves. Singers, actors, models, reality show contestants, gameshow presenters. Most books sold these days are airport novels, textbooks, or celebrity autobiographies, and I take up a pretty big share of that last field. Go to any bookstore and you’ll find my books, shelves and shelves of them, generally with eye-wateringly bright covers dominated by one of my many faces, with one of my many names in big block capitals. The subtitles tend to be variations on a theme: My life or My struggle or My story, and so on. I don’t choose them, the Company does. Perhaps they have a computer there, up in their offices, with some algorithm determining subtitles based on a set of facts about the subject. Perhaps they draw them out of a hat. I’m not really bothered.

Collecting the facts is easy, really. The subjects come up to my office and tell me their story. Sometimes I have to fill in some of the gaps for myself. Sometimes the Company gives me a little list of events that should be spun in a particular way: the firing of the manager was an amicable affair, the weird druggie phase was a hideous experience remembered with deep shame (or, increasingly, the opposite: it was incredible and they don’t regret a thing). I don’t object. I have no illusions about my craft.

The stories stick to a familiar pattern: the humdrum beginnings, the fortuitous discovery, the precipitous rise to fame, the gut-wrenching realisation that Money Can’t Buy Happiness, pathos-ridden episodes in which old friends are deserted and family scorned, downward spirals accelerated by drink and drugs, rehab, rapprochement, catharsis. Anyone could churn out a half-decent iteration of this quotidian little tale. My subjects could probably do it themselves, to be honest. I keep quiet about that.

Where my real talent lies is in the voice. I can steal my subject’s voice, I can snatch it from out of their throats. The discerning reader knows, intellectually, of course, that the book they read was not written by the person whose name appears on the cover (they’re wrong) – but they become immersed, I can make them forget what they at least think themselves to know. It’s not just a matter of using the right vocabulary, the right register, the right little catchphrases, although that’s important as well. When I interview my subjects, half of the time I don’t even pay attention to what they’re saying. I’m busy feeling for their voice, slowly sounding out the topography of their linguistic bearing. After I’ve done this, I could probably reconstruct the details of their whole story on that basis alone.

Sometimes, after a few interview sessions, the subjects start to see me as a kind of therapist. Maybe it’s the couch, the room full of books, me sitting across from them with the notepad. I have to remind them, gently of course, that while of course I care deeply about how miserable they are and the manifold reasons for their misery, the general public doesn’t necessarily share my concern. Their vulgar attempts at semi-Freudian autoanalysis are, after all, rarely relevant to the story. People don’t read celebrity autobiographies for the Oedipus factor. They – my subjects – are all in actual therapy as well, of course, without exception. Most of them are dosed up to the eyeballs on antidepressants, some on antipsychotics as well. I’ve had famous people, public figures, collapsing into shuddering tearful paroxysms in my office. I feign sympathy as best I can.

Have I ever slept with one of my subjects? Once, only once. The girl was a wreck, frankly: she was going through six psychiatrists a year, they couldn’t keep her, she kept fucking them. I never did that again. It wasn’t that I felt some sacred line of separation had been crossed, as if I were intruding into the story, I didn’t even feel particularly guilty; it’s just that I have my own way of crossing, my own way of intruding. I won’t name names. It would be gauche, I think.

All day I listen to famous people tell me stories they have told a thousand times before. All night I write them up. I go out, sometimes, to the grocery store, or to the bank. I still need food. Newspapers, when I have the time. Cigarettes, although I smoke only when I’m writing. Clothes, too; the Company needs me to look presentable. Occasionally I see a movie. Or I eat at a restaurant. A nice one. I can afford it. Alone. I don’t mind.

III – Sarcophagy

I am a rebellious ghostwriter. I think I may have mentioned that. But I never lie; everything I write is always scrupulously truthful – or, at least, truthful according to the reality generated at the intersection between my subject and the Company. Nor do I ever insist on myself in what I write, sneak in fragments of my own voice, my own persona, as if to remind the reader that the book they are holding is a fiction. There’d be some rebellion there, I suppose, but it’s of a dismal, futile sort. If I were to do that, to insist on the independence of a singular I against all my many subjects, I would be admitting defeat, I would be affirming only my own smallness. They would envelop me – I might make a desperate grasp, and with strenuous effort poke a little hole in their facades, but that would be all.

There is no singular I. We are all multiple.

When I said I have been born fifty times, a hundred times, I wasn’t being metaphorical. When I said I can steal my subject’s voice, I wasn’t using a figure of speech. It’s all me. Perhaps it’s better to call me a revolutionary rather than a rebel. When I write someone’s autobiography, I consume them. Oh, not the physical body itself, that stays. But their story, their voice, that belongs to me now. I become them. Their birth becomes my birth, their childhood mine, their happy memories mine, their psychoses mine, and if I seem at all disdainful towards them now, it’s only because very few of them don’t hate themselves. It’s not always a pleasant process. I need it, though. My multiplicity is never sated. I hunger. We hunger.

By the time the presses start rolling, my subject becomes, well, a part of my Subject – with what remains of them left a person stripped of all being. They don’t all die instantly, but after publication few make it longer than a year. Sometimes they will appear on a few reality TV shows, have a couple of photoshoots for increasingly unglamorous publications, they may even feature in a movie. But they’re done. Their story has been written down now, the stamp of history has been placed on their life, and there’s little for them to do but fade away.

I’m good at what I do, and that’s why the Company hires me. They’re not just a publishing firm, although I do tend to deal only with the publishing division. They run the agencies, the star-spotters – and when, for whatever reason, they want to get rid of a particular person on their books, they commission me to write an autobiography.

It’s far tidier than assassination. Sometimes I think Mark David Chapman may have been one of my less sophisticated predecessors. Lee Harvey Oswald too, for all I know. It’s possible. The Company is far larger than I can perceive; in all my contact with it I’ve been feeling along one tiny edge of some impossibly vast and expertly hidden structure. I don’t worry myself about it. It’s not my business.

The bell rings. It’s one of my subjects, a new one. There are perfunctory introductions. “Sit down,” I say. And then, after a while, “Tell me about your birth.”

A fever dream: on the eviction of Slavoj Žižek from the Celebrity Big Brother House

The scene: a raised platform, ringed with bright white lights, set before a surging mob, waving placards for pitchforks, bearing the political slogans of the post-ideological age, spitting and grimacing, desperate for vicarious jouissance, their toothy grins tinged with the threat of violence. On the platform: to the left, Davina McCall, professional objet petit a; to the right, Slavoj Zizek, the subject-supposed-to-know-what-a-subject-supposed-to-know-is. Between the pillars of light, grotesquely large pictures of Slavoj’s face – or what face there exists between bulbous nose and parasitically fungal beard. For a brief moment they both stare blankly forward – a cameraman gives a series of hand signals – suddenly they are animate, Davina cheering and throwing up her arms, Slavoj frantically tapping his nose and beard in a spasmodic fit.

DAVINA: Welcome back to Celebrity Big Brother, and welcome to Slavoj!

The crowd erupts in – not a cheer, exactly, but a noise, a mingling of yelling and clapping and hissing and roaring and stamping of feet, a riotous commotion.

SLAVOJ: Thank you very much, no, yes, it is an honour.

DAVINA: And it’s an awful shame, isn’t it, because you were so close, you were one of the last four left in the house.

SLAVOJ: Well, yes, I am not so much interested in the winning of the show, the accolades, the headlines, and so on, and so on – but the fantasy of being the last person in the house, to be alone in the house, with the cameras, with the constant presence of the Big Other, this I am interested in. It is a recurring theme in horror movies, no? You are alone in the house, but you are not alone, someone is there, someone is watching you – it is a perverse fantasy, I think. And very much Freudian, as well, in the sense of the unheimlich, of the home being a place of danger. So I am disappointed I did not win, yes, very much, indeed.

DAVINA: [unfazed] Let’s talk about some of the other housemates. There was a lot of tension, wasn’t there, between you and Chipmunk?

SLAVOJ: [with a startled snort] You say there was? I did not see any of this tension, entirely not, I felt he was an interesting man – maybe clinically, perhaps, you could say.

DAVINA: [to the crowd] Shall we show him the diary room tapes?

The crowd roars its assent. Fists are flung into the air in jubilatory schadenfreude: some miss and collide with another person, suddenly a hundred brawls are taking place, the crowd turns in on itself, here and there knives are produced and the sharp tang of blood mixes with the stink of sweat in the air. Only after the first few gunshots are heard do the security guards intervene: a phalanx of rottweiler-faced men in dayglo jackets forces its way towards where the violence is at its most intense – they are consumed by the crowd. Perhaps they are killed, perhaps they melt into its roil, it is impossible to say. A line of police cavalry charges. At first they make some progress: those at the edges of the crowd are swiftly truncheoned and detained, but soon the horses find themselves mired in the furious swarm, and in their anxiety they throw off their riders, the line is broken, the plan of attack evaporates. Some of the crowd attack the horses, some of the horses start fighting one another, gnawing chunks from each other’s necks. In the near distance, the low rumble of heavy artillery can be heard.

DAVINA: [exultant] Let’s show him the tapes!

CHIPMUNK: [onscreen] I just don’t get him man, like, what’s he done, why is he here? I ain’t never seen him on anything, like, nothing. And he’s some fucking wasteman, like, man ain’t had a single shower since the start of the show, swear down, he fucking stinks, doesn’t he? I can’t fucking sit next to him, or like even near him, you know what I’m saying? And he chats some breeze, innit. I’m saying, it’s not just his weird accent, and all the snorting and those little hand twitchy things he’s always doing, you know what I mean – he’s talking about sex the whole time: like, yeah, cool, but it’s all perversions, everything’s perverted, I can’t take a dump without it being some representation of my desires in the symbolic order or whatever – I’m like, are you kidding me? This guy built a career on that bullshit? It’s not even anything, really, it makes its own internal sense, kinda, but it’s entirely divorced from the actuality of human subjectivity and the actuality of the human condition, and that’s what the ultimate focus of philosophy needs to be, not all these masturbatory Lacanian abstractions. It bears no relation to how people actually function, it’s a poststructuralist psychoanalysist’s fantasy about how people actually function. So, nah. Me and Slavoj, I don’t see us being in the getalong gang in the Big Brother house, you know what I mean?

DAVINA: So, Slavoj, how does that make you feel?

SLAVOJ: Well, myself, I make it a point of never reading my critics, never reading my reviews. Or I will tell the publishers: put the bad reviews on the back of the book! My audience know who I am, they will read me anyway. But Chipmunk – he is ultimately an empiricist, he has a very British way of conceiving these things, this antipathy towards the abstraction, the Continentalism, and so on, and so on. In his music and his music videos, the focus – it is entirely on the immediacy of experience, no? So his criticism, it is still rooted in ideology, this I claim. The ideological disagreement, it does not translate into personal antagonisms. I am a good Hegelian, after all, such oppositions, they are necessary. But I should say, the proceduralism of intimacy in the diary room, it is exactly like Catholic confession, no, it is exactly the same. You do not confess to the priest, your confession is directed towards God, towards the Infinite Other, as in Levinas, and so on, and so on. You do not talk to Big Brother, you talk to the Big Other, to the audience at home, to the Holy Spirit. After I am evicted from this house, I am no longer a participant, I am an observing subject, an ordinary pervert, then it is acceptable to show me these tapes – it is a form of licensed voyeurism, is it not?

DAVINA: [nodding her head] One last question.

SLAVOJ: Please, please, go on.

Throughout this exchange Davina has been undergoing a grotesque metamorphosis: her cheeks grow fuller, her paunch expands, her tits shrink, her hair turns white and recedes. At first the faint shadow of a moustache falls on her upper lip, then stubbly hairs sprout from her chin. Soon she has a full beard, her eyebrows sit heavily on her brow, her camera-friendly coquettishness becomes a stern gaze, almost disdainful, which she now fixes on Slavoj. She is no longer Davina McCall: instead, Slavoj finds himself being scrutinised by the unmistakeable visage of Karl Marx – or perhaps Jehovah; depictions of the two are, after all,  very similar.

MARX: Do you not think that your participation in this televisual charade, your gleeful willingness to put your theorising at the services of capital, your unashamed prostitution, your jestering and japing, your fruitless contrarianism, your pop-psychoanalysis – do you not think that this not only casts disrepute on your status as a serious Marxist thinker, but also cheapens Marxism itself? Are you not turning revolutionary ideology into just another media gimmick?

The crowd, who are all orthodox historical materialists, nod sagely, in unison.

SLAVOJ: I know you. You said a man should be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner. Well then – can I not play the jester in the morning, advertise for garment retailers in the afternoon, appear on reality TV in the evening, and still be a serious philosopher after dinner?

MARX: You forget that we are still living under capitalism.

SLAVOJ: But under capitalism, we must still live.

The crowd, racked by confusion, briefly organises itself into a series of non-hierarchial egalitarian communes, forms a workers’ state, undergoes Thermidor, becomes disillusioned. Defeated, they shuffle back to their allotted space in front of the platform.

DAVINA: [for it is her again: the beard has gone, the grin has returned] Well, Slavoj, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Celebrity Big Brother. Do you have anything else to say before the end of the show?

SLAVOJ: Yes, I do. I would like to say that I endorse all the products of the Coca-Cola corporation, and that the cool refreshing taste of a glass of Coke proves without question that the transcendent object of desire is not in fact unobtainable – in fact, it can be obtained at your local newsagent or grocery store.

Lights wind down, theme music plays, scattered applause. Slavoj, rising from his seat to re-enter the world, takes an especially deep snort – then starts to gag. Something is clearly wrong. Davina sits impassively as Slavoj chokes on his own mucus: the cameras are off, after all. Slavoj writhes on the ground, flailing frantically. The sycophantic crowd tries to imitate his dying motions. Everywhere they collapse, their limbs jerk around, they feign choking noises. Everything begins to blur: the crowd, the stage, the cameras – now they are only a single undulating mass, a throbbing that reaches up above the horizon and encircles the world. Perhaps an orgy is taking place, it’s difficult to tell. There are no images any more, no clearly defined shapes or people, only an immense all-enveloping pulsation. The dream ends. Still, nothing is understood.

I went to Chernobyl

Chernobyl is not how you’d expect. By the time you go, you’ve done your research: you know that the nuclear power station there leaked a cloud of radioactive gas that swept over an entire continent. You know that Prypiat, a town of fifty thousand people, was evacuated and has been abandoned for twenty-five years. And the phrases you hear in connection with it – ghost town, nuclear wasteland, zone of alienation – conjure images of broad lifeless expanses of concrete and dead earth, of barren inhospitality, of a fractured landscape so unearthly it might be a sort of embassy of the moon. And as the coach takes you from Kiev into the contaminated zone, you are shown an absurdly lurid documentary about the disaster itself – although perhaps its Discovery-Channel sensationalism is perfectly appropriate for the absurdity of what happened there. A scientific experiment carried out by Soviet physicists at Chernobyl Reactor 4 that went horrifically wrong and almost threatened to wipe out half of Europe: it’s the stuff of pulp science fiction and disaster movies; that it actually happened seems somehow unreal. And you’ve learned about the heroism of the helicopter pilots who were rushed over from Afghanistan to drop sandbags onto the burning reactor and who all died from the radiation – not immediately, they didn’t suddenly slump lifeless over their controls, helicopters didn’t corkscrew out of the sky and smash into the ground with the cathartic finality of a Hollywood explosion; they died later, in a Moscow hospital, sickly-pale and emaciated, deep gouges cut into their flesh by the invisible subatomic enemy.

And then you see the reactor itself, its mangled mess of broken pipes and twisted vessels covered by an enormous concrete sarcophagus, a vast tombstone that forms a more sublime memorial for the victims of the tragedy than any of the slightly tacky plasticky monuments scattered around the area. It was built with no real consideration for architecture, the concrete blocks were assembled haphazardly, as quickly and as efficiently as possible, to contain the leaking radiation, but it does in fact look exactly like a cathedral. The faded smokestack forms the spire, it has its long nave, its square pillars like flying buttresses, its transept of scaffolding. It is the cathedral of the Enlightenment, a temple built to mollify the eschatonic power of the atom. Like the kaaba, or the kadosh hakadoshim, it contains a light so fierce that it would burn away any man who entered; and those who visit must undergo ritual cleansing – except here, instead of being anointed with oil, you press your hands against one of the large Geiger counters that ring the site and pray that the little light turns green.

But when you come to Prypiat, the ghost town, it’s almost impossible to draw a line of causality between the horrors of the disaster, the starkness of the power plants, and the organic lushness of what you see before you. Prypiat isn’t a barren wasteland, it is full of life. The forest has swallowed it up – and rather than being grim or menacing, it has an air of complete serenity. It’s impossible to find any sense of urbanity here: the central square is like a brief clearing in which some spindly plants still grow; what were once broad avenues now seem like country lanes. It’s as if the town had not been built and then abandoned, but had grown by itself in the middle of the forest without any human involvement at all: as if the buried strata of rock and iron, jealous of the autotelic vivacity of the plants above, had decided to organise themselves into roads and buildings, bursting out through the soil, twisting into new shapes to form a pre-ruined city. Its edges are frayed not because it has been dilapidated, but because the natural world rarely works in straight lines; even when inside the buildings, the layer of broken glass that crunches underfoot seems as innocuous as the litter of a forest floor.

Only when you go further from the bright concourses of the abandoned buildings does this illusion shatter, because every room in every building you visit is full of stuff: human stuff, notebooks, trinkets, portraits, music sheets, reminders that fifty thousand people once lived here, and now there is nobody. In a municipal swimming pool, the diving-board still arches gracefully over a tiled pit filled only with broken glass and debris. In the palace of culture, books lie torn and scattered across the shelves: a moment of panic, frozen. In the rusted tangle of what was once a funfair, you find a child’s shoe on the tarmac: only one.

The most doleful place of all is the school. The floor and tables in every classroom are carpeted with papers: essays, projects, drawings, exercise books half-filled, textbooks half-deteriorated. The little artworks of children who either had to grow up in a foreign city or were denied that chance by the radioactive dust. Things that once held so much importance to some unknown person are now just another fleck in a sea of nuclear debris. Worse still are the toys, the dolls and soldiers that slump forlornly in dusty corners or gleefully display their pathos on desk tops. Then, at the top of a flight of stairs, two crates full of gas masks: a brute intrusion of the catastrophe itself into this poignant little mausoleum.


These children lived in a different world. Hammer-and-sickles decorate the corners of their drawings; in one of their art classrooms you find a student’s piece: a lino print of a stylised missile, superimposed with the words нет бомби. The Soviet Union of 1986 was not a worker’s paradise, but the students of Prypiat were still taught that theirs was a society dedicated to the emancipation of humanity, the erasure of alienation, the resolution of antagonisms, to peace and socialism. It was no such thing, of course, but here and there it made its successes, and in Prypiat you can gain the tiniest of glimpses into the Soviet Union as seen from the inside: not as the menacing bear spreading its claws across Europe and Asia, with nuclear warheads tipping its canines, but as a place where a trace of the October Revolution’s optimism and hope for a better society still lingered on. A failure, yes, ultimately, but one at least still haunted by its own spectre.

Back, then, to the prosperous swarm of Kiev. In Independence Square, an old woman, shawled, hunched over, her clothes stained, her legs mottled with purple veins, her arms dappled with sagging skin, the muck of the streets ingrained in the creases on her face, carrying a stinking plastic bag by one shaking withered talon-like hand, shambles from bin to bin, rummaging for glass bottles. Above, the billboards blare out their stern commandments: to enjoy, to be lovin’ it. This is the victory of the West, this is the triumph of freedom. Here, in the bright liberal business-friendly centre of the New Europe, you can find the true ruins of Communism. In the sylvan tranquillity of Chernobyl, something of it still lives.

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