I’ve revised and extended my short story Atlantis, with over 2000 words of fresh ‘n’ funky brand-new material. Rather than editing it into the original post or cluttering up the front page with another massive block of text I’ve posted it here.
You are writing a story.
You’ve always felt that there was something inside you that you couldn’t quite express when talking with other people; while you knew, intellectually, of course, that your insight was in no way substantially different from that of anyone else, while you knew that we are all faced by the same existential questions and that our only difference lies in the way we react to them, while you’ve read enough to be certain that other people have felt exactly the same way as you throughout history, still you’ve always been aware of that chasm between yourself and others, you’ve always been troubled by that nagging feeling that however kind they were and however much you loved them they didn’t really get it. What was worse was that you didn’t even quite get it yourself; all you had for certain was a generalised sense of unease and a fascination with the fact of your own subjectivity; your psychiatrist told you that it was neurosis, as if it was something wrong with your self and not with everything around you, but you couldn’t explain to his satisfaction what the real problem was, so you decided to write it down, because you know that the pen in your hand is the only perfect listener and because you know that what you want to say needs to be reflected on in solitude; you decided to write it as a story because you’ve always loved stories, and because you’re certain that if you can project your problem onto a character you might be able to open up enough distance to be able to understand it properly; you know that there are plenty of literary devices that can help you do this. You knew better than to write in a coffee shop or in a bar, because people who write stories there care less about the stories themselves and more about the fact that they are seen to be writing a story. You write in silence, because you don’t want any emotion from your music to seep into the writing. You write with a pen and paper, because you dislike the hum of your computer’s fan and you know how tempting it is to let a quick spot of research spin out into hours wandering listlessly around the Internet. You set up your writing space: you have in front of you a notebook, two packs of cigarettes, an ashtray, and a small glass of whiskey. You are ready. You begin.
To begin with. A whiteness. Not the white of an empty page. There’s something there already. A swirling mist. Buried in it are shapes. Half-visible forms. Like faces in the clouds. The spectres of things yet to come. The murky forms of all the stories you could write. One long wispy curve could be the serpentine arch of a dragon’s neck or the Ponte di Rialto or the streamlined swoop of a spaceship. In the depths of the mist there are faint flashes of colour. The speckled brown of a war story. The lurid purple of a boilerplate romance. You pull out a good handful of this primordial matter and shape it into a human form. Your character. It stands there on its empty plane, drooping, bipedal, without form and void. You’ll need to sculpt it a little. You yank the hair from her head, pull it down to just short of her shoulders. It’s brown. Her eyes are brown too. The nose – you could play with that for a while, there are so many fun shapes to choose from, but for now you don’t get too excited. It’s crooked enough to have some character but not so much as to be obtrusive. Her face isn’t age-weathered, not exactly, but it’s not a young woman’s either – she’s thirty, perhaps. Still there’s her skin. Right now it’s a kind of shimmering iridescence, it changes tone depending on what angle you look at her from, but she can’t walk around like that, it’d be distracting. You settle on a vague olive shade for now. You can adjust it later, if you need to. She’d need other stuff, too, if she were to be an actual human being, she’d need some subcutaneous tissue, an endocrine system, for instance, and a network of lymphatic ducts, but she’s not an actual human being, just a character, and if you were to cut into her you’d see that below the surface she’s rubbery and skin-coloured all the way through, like putty. If she scrapes her knee she’ll bleed a little, but that’ll just be you telling the stuff to well up at the wound; there are no veins under her skin, unless you decide that one of them should get blocked with atheromas or become varicose. Surveying your creation you notice that she looks uncannily like yourself. Never mind. You give her a name different to your own: Jessica. You pick up your pen and start to write her into the world.
Your story is to discuss matters of consequence: at first you write sentences peppered with semicolons like bullet-holes in the walls of a mosque under siege; clotted with similes that bump up against one another other like passengers on the metro; tumultuous adjectives flow from the seething nib of your fecund pen; your knowingly obscure references proliferate with Tiamat’s fervour. As you go on your verbiage tends towards the sesquipedalian: the orogenic forces of your metaphors grindingly produce lofty and cragged peaks of prose, their higher reaches crowned with the glaciers of your profundity, shining coldly in the crystalline skies that sparkle above the low clouds of the mundane world. In the scabrous lower passes that cling perilously between sheer rock-faces and tenebrous chasms your characters cling terrified to any available purchase, buffeted by your pomposity’s screeching winds, lost and terrified. Jessica is beset on all sides by a cruel and vicious world: the avalanches of personal misfortune are forever threatened by a persistent creaking that emanates from the snowy echelons above, the ground under her feet is perpetually prone to suddenly give way to an abyssal void. There are also mountain lions on the prowl, although you haven’t quite worked out what they’re meant to symbolise yet.
You’re starting to think that this might be bullshit. You’re discussing your character’s place in the real world, after all. You change tack and introduce an everyday scene with words as squat and as squalid as the buildings they describe. On the high street the pavement is speckled with pigeon shit and chewing gum. Half the shop-fronts are boarded up, their faces as obscure and forbidding as the street patois you scatter into your description of the chavs hanging outside an abandoned supermarket, sharing a zoot, indifferently observing the daily life of their endz. A flaking piss-stain hangs like a limp noose down the side wall of McGowan’s Irish Pub, running parallel to the door to Jessica’s squalid bedsit. The stink of ammonia hangs in a sharp fug over your narrative. It’s there in the short vowels and curt demotic language you use as you have Jessica heave her sorry arse out of bed on a windswept Thursday morning. Jessica gropes for the light-switch, but nothing happens when she flicks it. She’s not really surprised: the pile of letters from the electricity company lies by his front door, as obtrusive and unwelcome as a mound of dog turds.
As you search for ways to torment your character, you remember the various small injustices that have befallen you – parking tickets, that promotion that went to the slimy creep at your office when you obviously deserved it, being hassled by police when you had only had one drink and were quite clearly fit to drive. You remember acrimonious breakups and the long periods of alcoholism and loneliness that had followed them. You remember the first time you fell in love – unrequited, of course – and the exquisite agony of seeing his face across a crowded room, happily chatting away at someone else. And, as you probe further and further back, the half-formed memories come out in a viscous flow: you remember the chilly shock of being pulled from the womb, you remember your omnicidal rage as an infant, you remember learning that you could shout words to get what you wanted, you remember the savage terror of the playground when you were a child.
The five-year-old Jessica was gangly and unathletic, with a speech impediment and a crooked smile. She wasn’t like the other kids, and they knew it far better than she did. She wanted to run and shout and play with them, but instead she ran right up against a wall of blank hostility. It was instinctual, of course; they couldn’t have justified it any more clearly than she, but it was there. The actual violence was sporadic but horrifying: one time she brought in a prized toy to school, clutching it tightly to her chest and grinning. One of the others – she couldn’t remember which, they never appeared as individuals – pulled it away from her and pushed her to the ground. She grazed her knee, and cried for a little while, and then stopped; only afterwards did she find a head being kicked across the tarmac surface by an indifferent wind, a trail of cotton stuffing flowing from its neck like the tail of a comet. Then she was inconsolable. Girls can be cruel.
Far worse than the violence was the isolation: the long hours spent hovering on the edges of everything, looking in, hearing a hundred simultaneous conversations scrambled into an amorphous mess of vowels, watching indistinct shapes run at each other while she stayed constantly static. The callousness of the outside world became too much for her, and before long she’d retreated to the school library. It was run by a middle-aged woman who wore colourful sweaters and hoop earrings. She was kind, and let her spend her break times there, drawing abstract pictures in black and grey crayons – at the time the librarian was also going through a protracted and increasingly vicious custody battle; of course Jessica didn’t know or care about that. Eventually it was suggested that with so many books around she might take the opportunity to read a couple of them. At first she was hesitant. She liked to build things: apart from the looping geometric shapes she drew in strict monochrome, she created fantastic landscapes in her imagination, complete with castles bristling with turrets and riddled with secret passages, dark forests where strange creatures slithered inbetween dappled columns of fulvously crepuscular light, vast underwater realms where she could float in restful solitude. Reading seemed far too passive. But she indulged her, if only out of a nascent sense of duty. She read grudgingly at first, then with increasing hunger. She found stories that could transport her away from her surroundings far more profoundly than her own imagination and words so perfectly placed that they had her shivering with aesthetic bliss. By the time she was eleven she was grappling with War and Peace. She never made it past the halfway mark, but for a few months her mind echoed with the clattering of hooves and the crack of cannon and the tapping of shoes on tiled floors. Of course, after a few years she started to emerge from her solitude, and when she read it wasn’t so much to escape the horror of her daily existence as for the sheer pleasure of it. But there was always a part of her that wasn’t quite there. She was never fully engaged with the world around her. There was always something about it that didn’t seem quite right.
Your hand starts to shake as you write, and you find yourself wondering why. None of this really matters, and none of this is really relevant, because it isn’t really yourself that you’re writing. After all, you are only writing a story.
I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. That’s how it all began.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, they’d terrified me a little. Well, everything had terrified me a little. The flat infinity of the city, the postapocalyptic emptiness of its streets, the harsh blank gazes of the strip-mall windows, the fury of the motorists, the pervasive anonymity and its constant gasping hunger for fame. It was so unlike the familiar crowded clutter of Europe: cities there hold you close in a maternal embrace; often they’re abusive mothers, but even if they’re actively trying to kill you at least they care enough to want you dead. Los Angeles is indifferent. I’d taken a drive through South Central, and what scared me most about the place was how identical it was to everywhere else: the same skeletal palm trees, the same uneven pavements, the same low bungalows with the same architectural inconsistency. But the homeless gave me a special kind of terror: I’d hear them yelping into the night as I walked drunk along Santa Monica Boulevard, howling like coyotes; I’d see their sleeping shapes in shopfronts, looking somehow coiled, ready to spring into a furious assault. There was one man who sat on a metal bench near my apartment, wearing a bulky green overcoat half-shredded into a mess of tangled fibres. He’d mutter softly to himself most of the time; sometimes he’d bark at people passing by. Once, while arriving home, I met his gaze for a single excruciating second. The lines in his face were slimy with grease, his beard was matted with blood and dirt, but his eyes were a cold hard blue and completely clear. I wondered what was happening in his head. I wondered what line separated me from him. I wondered how easy it would be for me to end up like he was. The Californian heat was enough to drive anyone mad; it bred prophets like swampland breeds mosquitoes.
It didn’t last that long. I got used to them. I saw how my new Angeleno friends behaved: people from my office and my apartment building, they were all good people with solid liberal principles, but they acted as if the homeless simply didn’t exist, as if they were drifting phantoms that had hallucinated themselves into being. I felt guilty about it at first, but I started to do the same. The city was packed with ghosts. Sitting impatiently on a bus as it lurched haltingly towards the smog-shrouded spires of Downtown, I pretended to ignore the fat black woman in a hospital gown singing gospel songs and drumming on the stinking plastic bags that carried all her possessions. Walking with groceries, I tried to forget the plaintive looks that emerged from every underpass. I kept my headphones and sunglasses on at all times, I sank into the music, so that the bright scorching world around me faded into a blur. It worked, to an extent.
“Spare a smoke, man?”
I was on Hollywood Boulevard; I can’t remember why – it’s a dump, frankly; I think I’d gone up there to buy some tacky gifts for friends back home. It was a hot day, even in the hills; an oppressive dull gleam shone from every surface, the blue sky throbbed with a feverish intensity. I was smoking, despite the dirty looks I got from Americans on the street, despite the sticky heat in the back of my throat. He was a young man with a short beard, hugging his knees in the entrance to an abandoned souvenir store, an overflowing rucksack propped up against the wall next to him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled instinctually, not meeting his eyes. “It’s my last one.” I carried on walking, quickening my pace a little, stamping on the names of forgotten celebrities, when I felt something shift inside me. Maybe it was my conscience. Maybe it was just the swarm of fat Midwestern tourists flitting about on the street around me with their sweatpatches and their gaping hungry mouths. I didn’t want to be like them.
I turned back. “I lied,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I took a cigarette out of my packet and held it out in his general direction. He took it without a smile.
“God bless,” he mumbled.
After that I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. I never stopped to talk to them, I never even stayed long enough to register their thanks – they still made me uneasy. I knew I wasn’t really helping; after all, I was giving them cancer. Still, it made me feel a little better; at least I wasn’t ignoring their existence.
It was a couple of weeks before I saw him again. The man I had given my first cigarette to was kneeling in a sleeping bag next to a fast food place not far from my apartment building, trying to position a purple-bound book in the dim streetlight.
“Are you hungry?” I said to him.
He looked at me quizzically. “Always.” He peered at me for a second. “Hey. Ain’t you the cigarette guy? I remember a face, man.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Hold on.” I went inside.
I came out with two burgers and sat down next to him. “What’s the book?” I said.
“Oh, it’s the Bible. Got me through a lot of tough times. Better out here than out in combat.”
“You’re a vet?”
“Iraq. Three tours. I saw some shit out there, I can tell you.”
“Not like buddies getting killed, you know. I mean, it happened, but I was never there…” He flung up his hands. “I was at Camp Alpha. You know where that is?”
“Babylon, man. We built this base right in the ruins of Babylon. It was all reconstructed by Saddam. But still. We’d be getting drunk at night and running round all these ancient buildings, climbing over these statues to gods, and we didn’t even know their names. It just felt like… at night it was like they was staring at you. You could almost hear ‘em chanting, like these deep ancient chants…” He looked down and started to unwrap the burger. “You gotta think I’m crazy. It’s just, you know, I don’t get to talk to people all that often.”
“Not at all.”
“It was just like, shit, I never even finished high school and I’m walking round Babylon. I was a fucking dumbass nineteen year old, and I was meant to be teaching these guys – the Iraqis – about democracy, when it was them that invented the whole thing – architecture, government, writing for fuck’s sake. I didn’t know that. By the end of it, when I kept getting called back, I was pissed as hell. Punched my CO right in the face after he kept going off on some hajji bullshit. Then I got my big chicken dinner – shit; BCD, bad conduct discharge – and, you know, the rest…”
We ate in silence for a while. When I left I reached out to shake his hand.
“You didn’t ask my name,” he said. It wasn’t an accusation, just a statement of fact.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You apologise a lot. I’m Brandon. Brandon Leigh.”
Brandon slept on the street in Skid Row. Every day he took the bus up to Hollywood or the Westside to panhandle. I think he must have worked out that I lived in Santa Monica; most days I’d see him sitting on the street not far from my apartment building. I didn’t mind. I would buy him some fast food and he’d tell me stories from the war – or one story, at least. Brandon was fixated on a single image: four young Americans cavorting through the ruins of Babylon, and one of them suddenly stopping, feeling a cold breath down the back of his neck, the chill of something vast and hungry and incomparably ancient. He didn’t believe in the gods of Mesopotamia; he was a good Christian, after all. It was something else: a vibe, he said. A terrifying vibe.
“Why do you do this?” he asked one day. “It’s not like I’m not grateful or nothing. But you gotta admit it’s pretty weird. Most folks here just ignore people like me.”
“I’m not from here,” I said. “I don’t know. I don’t like to ignore things. I want to experience everything.”
“You been to Skid Row yet, man?”
“I’ve been past it.”
“If you wanna experience everything, that’s where you gotta go. I’ll show you round.”
Brandon and I took the bus to Skid Row that weekend. We rode in silence through the sterile skyscraper-speckled landscape of Bunker Hill. After that the terrain became flatter; the Art Deco flourishes of the buildings to the West faded into squat white warehouses, car parks, empty lots in which a few stray tufts of grass shivered. Slowly the streets became more and more crowded: people wandering aimlessly, sitting in doorways, lying supine on the pavement, squatting next to their tents. The low cityscape was broken by the odd old brick building with a spluttering neon sign. The shopfronts were all boarded up. Paint peeled from the facades of the buildings.
“Welcome to America’s only Third World city,” said Brandon as we stepped off the bus.
The stench was overpowering. Rotting waste, sewerage, old urine, body odour. A tide of litter lapped against the kerbside. The ground was sticky beneath my feet. Most of the people that thronged the street stood silently. A few chattered continuously in a low mumble. Through the day’s haze the brooding grey shapes of the towers to the west could just be made out, monolithic and threatening.
Brandon followed my gaze. “I don’t wanna make this a race thing,” he said. “But you gotta admit, most of the folks out here are black. And most of the folks up there are white.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
I went back a few days later. Brandon introduced me to some of his neighbours. Some of them mumbled politely. Some were silent; they wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“It’s not much,” he said afterwards. “But it’s a community.”
“More a community than most places in this city,” I said.
“Ain’t that true.” He stood up. “Listen. There’s this church near here, they do shave and a shower… reckon you could just watch my things? Fifteen minutes. Police’ll confiscate it otherwise.”
I waited, reading Brandon’s bible. I was halfway through II Corinthians when I was approached by two people: a tall woman in black jeans with her dark hair cut short and skin as pale as porcelain, and a scrawny acned guy in a polo shirt slightly too big for him. The woman crouched down next to me. “Hi,” she said. “My name’s Molly and this is Tim. We’re from the Brotherton Foundation.”
“Hi,” I said, and told her my name. I extended a hand. She didn’t shake it.
“You have an accent… are you documented? You can tell us. It’s strictly confidential.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have a work visa.”
Molly’s brow furrowed. “You’re not-”
“I’m not homeless,” I said.
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry. It’s just we try to keep track of all the guys here, so that if something happens to them… what are you doing here?”
“I’m watching someone’s stuff for him.”
She peered at the rucksack. “Brandon?”
She shrugged. “It’s my job. Who are you with? I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I don’t work with a charity. I just… I just come here sometimes.”
“That’s weird.” She gave a wry smile. “Are you writing a novel or something? Listen, our office is on Sixth. You should drop round some time.”
My visits to Skid Row became more and more frequent. Most days I’d spend an hour or so there after work, sometimes giving out cigarettes and burgers, sometimes just talking to the residents. Many of them were suspicious at first; they didn’t know what I wanted from them. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure either. I got to know the eccentrics of the neighbourhood: Megan, the dumpster-diving daughter of a Silicon Valley millionaire who wore clothes stitched from palm leaves and insisted that she had been a yeast infection in a previous life; Bertrand, a wizened old man who walked around naked pontificating in aristocratic tones about the continuing relevance of Hellenic Classicism as a model for the worthy life; Rhonda, a drag queen whose shopping trolley was filled with discarded cosmetics she’d found in bins across the city; Colin, who went to an internet café every day to record a rambling videoblog. I ran into Molly occasionally, often with Tim as well; we gave each other a nod of recognition and sometimes chatted for a few minutes. I never did drop into the office. I think my presence confused her a little.
It wasn’t always pleasant. I saw paramedics fret furiously as a woman gave birth on the street, surrounded by shit and muck. I saw an argument between two men escalate suddenly into a knife fight; their lumpy overcoated forms circled and darted with an almost balletic fluidity. I saw near-spherical Latina prostitutes drag their patrons into Portaloos, I saw emaciated junkies whose eyes darted about from the bottom of dark cavernous pits, I saw men vomiting blood and oozing pus. It was never dull, though. Everyone there believed in something grand and cosmic: Brandon had his spirits of Mesopotamia, Megan her hippie Hinduism. Most had their own hobo variations on Christianity, some had intricate conspiracy theories – they saw demons and aliens behind the placid faces of the comfortable Angelenos who walked past them, carefully ignoring their existence. I had a long theological conversation with a recovering junkie who’d joined a twelve-step programme at one of the local churches.
“There’s two powers in this world,” he told me. “There’s the Light. That’s the blood of Christ. Then there’s the darkness. That’s the tar. The darkness draws you in. It makes you all safe and comfortable. The Light hurts. But the Light is life and the tar is death, and that’s all there is to it. You can’t receive the blood of Christ while your own blood is still full of the tar.” He coughed. “Do you know Christ as your saviour?”
“I do,” I lied.
“God bless, God bless you. The dark does bad things for you. It made me steal from my momma. It made me want to hurt my fellow man. That shit even got me kicked out of Atlantis-” He stopped, suddenly, with the stricken look of someone who’s said something they shouldn’t have said.
“It’s a bunkhouse near here,” he said hurriedly. “They don’t take no junkies. Don’t blame ‘em.”
I saw Molly the next day. “What’s Atlantis?” I asked her.
She and Tim were taking a lunch break, eating quesadillas on a bench by a bus stop. She had a smudge of guacamole by the corner of her lip. I didn’t mention it.
“It’s a myth,” she said.
“Not the legend. Something here called Atlantis.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a myth. OK. The story goes that back in the Nineties a bunch of homeless people started living in the disused subway lines under Los Angeles. We actually used to have the best public transport system in the country, but it all got closed down during the Depression… anyway, they’re supposed to have built this whole underground city of the homeless. Like two hundred thousand people. With electricity, even. They hook themselves up to power lines. And they’ve got common ownership over everything. There’s all these houses down there but they don’t belong to anyone, they sleep in a different place every night. So their society doesn’t make the same mistake as ours. A lot of the guys believe in it. You can see why, really.”
“But it doesn’t exist.”
She smiled. “Well, we can’t know. But no. It doesn’t exist.”
“Yesterday someone told me he’d been there.”
“A lot of the guys came out of psych wards, you know. They’re not always reliable.”
“He seemed pretty cogent.”
Tim leaned over. “If you’re into all that kooky shit you should talk to Roy Kelner,” he said. “This philosophy professor up at UCLA. He used to come down here every weekend and talk about Atlantis. He really believed in it.”
I took down the name.
It was slow at first. Sometimes I’d idly wonder if I was unknowingly walking directly above Atlantis. I asked a few more people in Skid Row what they knew about the place. Many of them believed in it. Only a few claimed to have been there, but their descriptions were rambling and contradictory: Atlantis was populated entirely by horny white women, Atlantis was decked out with chrome and holographic screens, Atlantis was a humid jungle miles below the Earth’s surface, Atlantis existed across a portal to another dimension. I never saw the junkie evangelist again; I talked to Molly but she couldn’t recognise him from my description. I started trying to draw pictures of the place, shakily to begin with – I’d abandoned my art some years before. The first attempt looked like a subterranean Skid Row. Chiaroscuro against a background of tangled wires and scuffed brickwork I drew bodies slumped against the walls of corrugated-iron shacks. Bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceilings gave long shadows to the piles of litter between the train tracks and the shit running down the walls; in one corner a mange-bitten rat posed dramatically on its hind legs. It didn’t look right: this was not Atlantis. I tried again. This time, I decided that the founders of Atlantis had had the subway tunnels faced with white marble. Shining chandeliers were placed at regular intervals; they bathed everything in a soft crepuscular glow. Jutting from the walls were Ionic colonnades; here and there were fountains and statues depicting the gods and heroes of the homeless. The citizens of Atlantis were drawn strolling around at a leisurely pace, naked, with beards and long glossy hair. They slept wherever they pleased, on the steps of the various temples and academies, or on the long grass strewn with wildflowers that had been planted on the tunnel’s floor. Only the wires and pipes running through the ceilings and the odd subway car converted into living spaces served to remind that this was not some supernatural realm but a city buried under the streets of Los Angeles. I discarded that one too: what I had drawn was a fantasy; I knew that a real Atlantis existed. My third attempt was closer to the truth, I think. Why would the Atlanteans, who had successfully hidden their city from the world for decades, be content to live in the spaces carved out by Los Angeles? What if they had continued to excavate, broadening the abandoned subway lines until they all converged? I drew an immense cavern, crisscrossed by flaking girders from which bundles of power lines hung loosely. Floodlights were bolted to some of them, a glittering constellation of floodlights, shooting beams of light in random paths, revealing fragments of the vast city below. Atlantis was a bric-a-brac mess; its streets were a tangled scribble, like those of a medina or a medieval town. The buildings were all in irregular shapes, built on top of each other; none had all four walls made from the same material. Winding around and between them were more wires, ziplines, staircases, slides, hidden passages, secret entrances. Towards the centre was a cluster of skyscrapers not unlike those in the city above, but these too were wreathed in twisting ramps and staircases, like ivy around the trunk of a tree. Atlantis was a schizophrenic city, but it was consistent in its own logic; its anarchy was a warm and human one, a necessary counterpoint to the cold rational gridded psychopathy of Los Angeles. I kept the drawing in a drawer in my apartment. I never showed it to anyone.
The next week, I called in sick at work and decided to find Roy Kelner. The UCLA campus was broad and open, dotted with green spaces. Little kids ran between the trees, shrieking unintelligibly. Musclebound students in vests and sunglasses bumped fists as they crossed paths with each other and walked on without saying a word. In front of one building a gaggle of earnest-looking types were protesting against something or other. I asked for Roy Kelner at the front desk in the Philosophy department.
The receptionist frowned. “I don’t think I know him. Hang on.” She tapped at her keyboard. “K-E-L-N-E-R? I don’t think there’s anyone by that name here.”
Another woman’s face appeared from behind a doorway. “You’re looking for Kelner? He doesn’t work here anymore.”
“He got fired?”
“Not exactly. Is this about Atlantis?”
“Yeah, we get people asking about that sometimes. One guy wanted to make a documentary about him. Kelner was my professor when I was at grad school here. He got really weird about it, to be honest. We were meant to be doing Contemporary Continentalism and all he’d ever do was talk about Atlantis. Obsessed. He was so certain that it existed. And then one day he just vanishes. No note, nothing.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe he found it. Who knows? I’m sorry I can’t help. He did write a book about it, though. The Impossibility of the Real: Theorizing Atlantis. He put it on our required reading list.”
“You don’t have a copy, do you?”
“’Fraid not. They should have one at the Powell Library, though. It’s just across the quad.”
The library swarmed with students tapping away at their laptops: I only saw one, a dark-haired girl in green leggings, who was actually reading a book. Kelner’s book was very slim; more of a pamphlet, really. Underneath the title was a painting I recognised as Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego. I opened it a few pages in:
The homeless operate according to a temporal and spatial paradigm that constitutes a nomadic smooth-space disruption of the striations of space as interpreted by the State. They manifest themselves not as a series of molar entities but as a single substance engaged in a total deterritorialisation: their model is not that of the herd but that of the swarm.
I flipped forwards a few pages:
Here it may be valuable to consider the development of the subterranean city in terms of Negarestani’s ( )hole complex and his conceptualization of solidus and void.
Towards the end:
Hardt & Negri’s assertion that resistance is ontologically prior to power provides a reversal of traditional social dynamics that allows for a wealth of new theoretical approaches. Similarly, a richer understanding may be achieved if it is postulated that it is, in fact, Los Angeles that forms a vast parasite on Atlantis; a teeming, grossly over-extended remora-city whose inhabitants live out their lives unaware their existences form a superficial manifestation of a far more profound reality. Los Angeles, home to the entertainment industry and epicenter of global spectacularity, is constructed of artifice and simulacrum; it is only its leech-like attachment to Atlantis that prevents the entire city from drifting off into the air. It is the tellurian powers of Atlantis that maintain, direct, and control the nature of existence in the surface-city. The lack of popular recognition for the city’s dark twin and the official denials of its existence do not demonstrate that it is unreal; rather, they demonstrate that in the society of the spectacle, the Real unavoidably takes on the aspects of myth.
Before long I stopped going to work entirely. I’d spend my days in Skid Row and my nights doing feverish research in my apartment. A few of my friends still called me occasionally, but after a while they started to drift away. I scoured the Internet for maps of the tunnels under Los Angeles and started looking up prices for head-mounted torches. I read accounts from other people who’d spent hours traipsing around the catacombs of the city trying to find Atlantis. I knew why they’d failed: they were trying to invade Atlantis, to plant their flag on its soil. To go there one had to be invited in. I thought about trying to contact Kelner – even if he’d found Atlantis maybe he still read the paper; I could place an advert in the Los Angeles Times. My trips to the laundry became sparse. I stopped shaving; I trimmed my beard occasionally, when I had the time. My jeans frayed at the cuffs. I didn’t replace them.
I was sitting on the kerbside, smoking a solitary cigarette, when I saw Molly running past me. “It’s Jerome!” she said.
I followed her. Around the corner, a moustachioed cop was wrestling for control of a shopping trolley with a wiry old man in a ragged t-shirt. Molly stopped next to them.
“Sir,” she said, panting. “What’s happening here?”
“I’d stand back if I were you, miss,” said the cop.
“What’s happening?” she said again.
The old man fixed Molly with a frenzied stare and shook his jowls, liberally dousing us in spittle. “They wan’ my treasures!” he said. “Stop ‘em, Moll! Buzzers! Bluebottles! They wanna take my treasures!”
“Let him keep it,” said Molly. “Sir, he’s not hurting anyone.”
“Your man here has a shopping cart full of bottles of his own urine,” said the cop. “It’s a public safety hazard.”
“It’s all Jerome has,” she said.
Jerome made a lunge for the cop’s waist. “Buzzers away!” he roared. The cop pushed him to the ground and cuffed him. Jerome writhed desperately. “A-da-da,” he moaned. “A-da-da-da. Not my golden. I made it myself. Stop ‘em, Moll.”
“What’s your badge number?” said Molly. “I’m going to make a complaint.”
Jerome’s head darted upwards and struck the cop on his chin. “My treasures!” he roared. The cop truncheoned him in the back of the neck. Molly rushed towards the trolley.
“Stand back!” shouted the cop. With one knee now on Jerome’s neck, he pulled a Taser from his belt. “Not one step!”
“Or what?” said Molly. “You’ll shoot me? Give him his things back!” She reached out to grab the trolley handle. The cop fired: there was a sudden crack of electricity, and two darts arced out to Molly’s chest. She fell over backwards. Her head hit the pavement with a dull thud. One arm twitched. Jerome shrieked. I rushed over to her. There was another crack. The world flashed a searing white.
“Jesus Christ,” said Molly as we walked back around the corner, defeated. “Fuck. I need a drink.”
“Shouldn’t you go to a hospital or something?”
“I’m Irish. I need a drink. I’m going back to the office. I’m going to have a drink and then I’m going to get that fucker fired. You want one?”
“It’s only five in the afternoon… what am I saying? Of course. I’d love one.”
The office was, as it turned out, two small rooms over a dollar store, half-buried in papers and ring binders. “As you can see, we’re not the most well-funded organisation out here,” said Molly, reaching into a drawer and withdrawing a bottle of whiskey. She took a big glug. “I hope you don’t mind drinking from the bottle.”
I laughed. “Reminds me of being a kid.”
Molly sat down on an overstuffed sofa leaning against one wall and beckoned me to join her. “Where do you work?” she said. “I don’t think I even asked.”
“At this accountancy firm. It’s not very interesting.”
“So what makes a guy who works at an accountancy firm suddenly decide to spend all his time on Skid Row?”
“I wasn’t always an office drone. I used to be-” I paused.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I used to write graphic novels. Unpublished, of course.”
“That’s cool. What were they about?”
“Superheroes… my thing was superheroes with boring powers. I did a whole series about a guy who had laser eyes, but they were only good for scanning barcodes at the supermarket.”
Molly laughed. “That’d go some way to explaining your obsession with Atlantis.”
“What about you? How’d you end up working here?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I came down here for college, from a tiny whitebread town up in NorCal, and I was just so upset by it all… you know, two months in and I was a radical feminist and an anti-poverty campaigner and everything. I just wanted to help, I guess.” Molly stood up. “Do you like blues?” she said, walking over to a CD player in the corner of the office.
“Sure,” I said.
She pushed a button. A few dusty-sounding guitar notes sounded out. As she walked back Molly swayed her hips a little, clicking one hand, looking slightly bashfully at the floor.
“My dad only ever had one record,” she said, sitting down next to me. “He’d play it the whole time in the car. Robert Johnson. You know him?”
“Isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the Devil?”
“At the crossroads, yeah. It’s actually all based on this Yoruba legend. It’s not necessarily the Devil. It’s Eshu. The spirit of the crossroads.”
I thought of Brandon, hearing the voices of dead gods in the ruins of Babylon. “There’s myth everywhere. Under the surface.”
Molly gave me a strange look. “You’re such a Romantic,” she said.
“Aren’t I just.” I slid an arm over her shoulders and leant towards her.
“Oh, knock it off.”
“It wasn’t a fucking compliment! Why are you here? I’ve seen you. All you talk to the guys about is Atlantis. This made-up tooth fairy legend! Like they don’t matter. There are real people suffering out there, and you come down here because – because what? You find it interesting? You get some sick aesthetic enjoyment out of their misery?”
“That’s not true,” I said, not fully believing myself.
“Yes it is! You don’t really care, do you? You’re interested, but you don’t care.”
“It’s still true. You don’t give a shit about anyone apart from yourself.”
I stared at the floor. “I don’t know how to.”
Molly stood up. “Please go,” she said. “I’d feel a lot better if you- please, just go.”
I didn’t go back to Skid Row the next day. I sat around listlessly in my apartment, watching TV, trying not to think about Atlantis. That afternoon I had a less than friendly visit from two officers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. They explained as I packed my possessions that as I hadn’t shown up for work in weeks, my visa was no longer valid. On the flight back, I stared out the window as the desert melted into the vast flat cornfields of the Midwest, as the Appalachians soared past me, as the interminable expanse of the Atlantic was finally broken by a rolling patchwork of tiny constricted pastures. I was home, back in that crowded little space where all the ancient myths died out centuries ago.
I manage. Friends and family were surprised to see me back so early; when I tried to explain what had happened I could tell that they didn’t really understand. I have a job, and my old apartment again. I’ve given up drawing altogether, which is probably for the best. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. But whenever in one of those little moments of blankness my mind floats away from its surroundings – when I’m in the shower, or on public transport, or bored at the office – it always goes to the same place. I float through the miles of empty tunnels under Los Angeles, chasing the faint gleam of a light that is always close but never within reach, searching for Atlantis.
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 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?