He’s lying on the couch. Not a psychiatrist’s couch, not even his own, the flat came furnished, and the couch is – frankly it’s hideous, a kind of bright synthetic blue, dulled by cigarette ash and soup-stains but still with the trace of a cheap buried radiance, half lapis lazuli, half blue raspberry flavoured energy drink; its coarse fabric breaking up and drifting into the little fluffy nebulae that dot its surface; a long laceration runs down its side, a labial scar peeling back to reveal the weak-tea-coloured cushion beneath: the dull blasphemy of the Inside, the utterly boring final insufficiency of the Real. He lies on the couch, a notepad and pen in the folds of his tracksuit, a tablet computer propped against his knees, watching pornography. She’s bent over another sofa, folded over its black leather arm. Oh-oh-oh-oh-ah, she says, veins popping. Hnnnrg, he says. There’s the steady tapping of his balls against her thighs. Thwoc-thwoc-thwoc-thwoc-thwoc. He watches distractedly. He can’t really think this early in the morning, all he sees is one pink blob fucking another; it’s entirely asemic, abstract expressionism. The camera angle switches, now you can see it from slightly below, going in and out, gleaming greasily. His legs are like pines – no, like skyscrapers. Sheer glass towers, the men in their offices at the top surveying the city and its small pathetic people with vague Olympian contempt. Helots, all of them. The gods might see the fall of every sparrow, but they don’t care. Her arse is a cosmic orb. The congress of titans. The incest of finance capital.
His analyst doesn’t have a couch; they sit on identical chairs facing each other. Dr Chen doesn’t approve of the thing, he’s some kind of structuralist; there’s a bookcase behind the desk in the corner of the room with all the usual suspects. Marcuse, Lacan, Melanie Klein, you need to have read a lot of books to be able to sit in a chair and go Hmmm occasionally, or at least to be able to charge money for the service. He wonders what Dr Chen’s neuroses are. You have to be analysed yourself before you can practice, after all. It’s like being inducted into a cult: the shaman of other people’s minds must first have his own scooped out and dissected. All except ol’ cokey himself, Big Poppa Freud; Jung offered but he was refused. In algebraic sequences every number refers to another number, all except the root, n, which exists outside time, answerable only to itself.
How often, would you say, says Dr Chen. He doesn’t ask questions, he makes flat statements of fact; their similarity to the interrogative is purely syntactical.
It’s not really a matter of how often, he says. It’s – it’s not really a quantity. I think about five hours a day. Sometimes more. I don’t know.
Dr Chen doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t even note anything down.
I know how it sounds, he says.
How do you think it sounds.
How you think it sounds. He doesn’t think, he knows. Still. It sounds like I’m crazy, he says. I’m not crazy. It’s not pleasurable, you know. I’m only doing it for research.
Crazy isn’t a category I use. But do you think it’s healthy.
How do you think it impacts on the way you relate to other people. Your sex life, for instance.
I don’t have a sex life.
Dr Chen nods minutely. Hmmm.
It’s been – well, over a year. I had a little anniversary about a month ago.
A little anniversary. What did you do.
What did I do? I watched pornography.
That was then. It’s now almost two years. They’ve progressed a little since.
I think it’s time we started thinking about why it is you’re here, Dr Chen says, pushing his glasses up his nose. I can help you. But I can’t help you if you don’t know what you want out of this. What do you want.
What do I want?
Do you want to go back to work. Do you want to be able to interact with people normally again.
No! No. I want… I want to be able to finish my study.
And what’s holding you back.
It won’t take form… I get distracted. I can hardly think these days. Like I’m always elsewhere.
What’s distracting you is the content of what you’re doing. It’s not a disinterested study. Surely you must know this. It’s a pathological fixation. A psychosexual fixation.
He’s heard this all before. Do you know about Charles Whitman, he says.
Yeah. He was a mass killer in the Sixties. In America, of course. Murdered his wife and his mother, then started shooting people from a clock tower. It was twenty minutes before the police got him. But in his suicide note he requested an autopsy, he knew that the urges he was getting weren’t coming from his own mind. And when they carried it out they found he had a massive brain tumour, pressing up against his hypothalamus. It was changing his behaviour. He knew it was there. But still he went and shot all those people. What do you think about that?
What do you expect me to think about it.
I think you think he should’ve sought medical help. I think you think I’m just trying to be provocative… I think Whitman was heroic. In the proper Achillean sense. He saw what was his duty, he knew it was wrong, he knew it was monstrous, and he went and did it anyway. It doesn’t matter if that duty comes from the Gods or the King or a massive tumour in your brain. You have to do something, so you do it.
Why do you think you identify so strongly with this man.
Dr Chen is a charlatan, he thinks as he walks out. He talks about pornography, and Dr Chen wants to talk about sexuality, as if the two have anything to do with each other. It’s cold outside. The polyglot masses drift about the high street, gliding on the frost: Nigerian women in bulky overcoats, Arab men in threadbare suits, all of them ghostly-pale. London is desaturated. There are Christmas lights strung between the buildings in a thousand colours: grey-red, grey-purple, grey-green. The yellow skins of fag-ends piled in doorways, they’re vivid, at least. Jaundice. Cancer. He imagines tumours as bright iridescent things, the giddy tumultuousness of the body’s insurrection against itself. A tumour is virile, big and meaty, full of life and insanity. That’s how he knows he’s not insane.
Dr Chen wants to talk. Pure logocentrism, nothing useful is ever said aloud. Speech is always performative, there’s no real substance to it at all. He can’t watch films any more, even TV disgusts him. The words he usually hears fall into a familiar pattern. Mmmm. Mmmm. Oh-oh-oh-oh. Fuck. Yeah. Fuck me. Fuck. He imagines the girls on the toilet, sphincters straining. Shit, they moan. Mmmm. Shit. Or afterwards, sitting in some fast food restaurant with their big sunglasses covering half their faces. Eat, they whimper, burger juices dripping from their mouths. Ooooh. Eat. And finally, when there’s no more use for them and the medication’s starting to run against the natural limits of life’s unliveability, as they toss away the empty bottle and lie down on their bed, a last contented gasp: Ahhh. Die. Mmmm. Die.
He probably does hate women. He’d denied it at first; he’d written a long and verbose letter of protest to the British Journal of Ephemera. When his paper had been published there was an uproar. Everyone hated it. He’d give lectures, he’d talk for two minutes, and then suddenly all the students would stand up and walk out without saying a word. In feminist journals his name was asterisked out. Of course the faculty had to suspend him. No respectable body could employ the author of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8. But he doesn’t hate them with any real malice. It’s just that once you see them smiling gratefully, their beautiful faces dripping with cum – once you’ve seen that a few thousand times, it’s hard to conceive of a female that isn’t contorted by feigned ecstasy or garlanded with jism. There’s one sequence he likes particularly, it is, he thinks, extraordinarily rich in hermeneutic possibilities. It’s from the end of one of the artier films, the ones that call themselves Erotica with no apparent irony. He’s fucking her from behind; eventually he pulls out, but rather than spurting big globs of gunk in her face, there’s only a loose watery dribble. No mind. He takes his cock, shrinking and wrinkling, and flops it all over her arse and her lower back, leaving a few glistening snail-trails. As he does so she smiles, the same placidly loving smile, as if this was exactly what she wanted, and music plays: Spanish guitar, lilting and harmonious, sad romantic notes, as if what we’re watching is an act of tender love.
He still has one friend from the faculty. Simon, his former mentor. They meet, occasionally, in a grotty old-man-pub. Simon spends half the time looking over his shoulder; he doesn’t want to be seen with him. They discuss old colleagues for a while. One of them took part in a demonstration with his students and had his head caved in by a police baton.
It’s grotesque, Simon says. There’s a constant vigil at the hospital. They’ve taken to spraypainting pictures of him all round the campus looking like Che Guevara. Ridiculous, really. Everyone’s forgotten just how reviled he used to be. Don’t you remember that antisemitic thing he wrote?
Ha. Well. Exactly. It only got dug up a couple of years after the fact, but it was some really nasty stuff. Not even Holocaust denial, they could have forgiven that, I think. The ethical co-ordinates of Auschwitz as a Hegelian Moment. But then all he had to do, to be honest, was write another paper pinpointing exactly what was wrong with what he’d said before. I mean, he won’t be speaking at Tel Aviv University any time soon, but he’s been pretty much rehabilitated, hasn’t he? Simon puts his pint down and stares across the table at him. I mean, he says, couldn’t you just do the same thing?
Get beat up by the police?
You know what I mean.
You don’t understand, Simon. That paper was bad, it was dreadful, but not for any of the things it’s been criticised for. I’ve moved so far beyond all that. I’m close to a breakthrough, you know.
I know that you’ve ruined your career. I know that you’ve ruined your social life. Jesus, why can’t you just admit you were wrong-
Because I’m not wrong. Listen. I think I’ve opened up a whole new field of study. It’s not just about pornography. It’s about culture itself. The first real innovation in the theory of culture since – Christ, since the Frankfurt School, maybe.
You’re not the first person to study pornography.
Oh, gender studies, feminist criticism… I’m the first person to look at pornography in the way I’m doing it.
Simon smiles. Well, that’s true, at least.
I mean, have you read the stuff that gets written? Barbara Stanten’s for instance. Picking it apart, it’s racist, it’s sexist, with no thought for what it actually is. Myopia, ideological myopia. Pornography is culture. In its totality. Nobody thinks about the fact of utility.
You mean aesthetics.
No, not at all… Art, real art, it’s the opposite of aesthetics. The aesthetic is like a monstrous parasite on the body of art, it’s got so big and swollen that we’ve forgotten to look for the thing itself, the actual it.
Das Es, says Simon. You’ve turned into an id-monster.
Would you stop making this about me? I get enough of that from Dr Chen. Look, when I publish-
Who’s going to publish you?
I’ll go to the porn mags, if I have to. They published the Unabomber, didn’t they?
Getting published isn’t the problem at all, but he doesn’t mention that. The fact is that all he has is notes. Endless pages of them, a shelf of spiral-bound notebooks above his shelf of pornographic DVDs. Amy’s Big Day Out 3: at 12mins 37sec – Amy’s tongue – circular movement around the penis – eyes directly to camera – cf. Walter Benjamin – ‘art has escaped from the realm of the beautiful pretence’. Some are briefer. Cumshots – Aristotle (Poetics, W&W ed., p. 68)? It’s all coalescing into something, something utterly revolutionary, but he can’t quite phrase it, he can’t explain it even to himself.
Standing outside Dr Chen’s practice: now what? Stupid question. Take the bus back to his flat and watch pornography. The outside world is completely flat, a grey deadened plane, its protuberances statistically insignificant on the face of its endless impossible horizontality. Its thousand mouths speak with a single voice. Yeah well I told him yes it is a bit cooler than yesterday shameful the way she carries on nah mate it’s not like forty five pounds if you’d believe it… There are women on the bus. He’s terrified of them. Women, real women, are pure judgement. It’s not the disappointment of women that men are scared of, that’s by the by, it’s their enjoyment. Female pleasure bursts the solipsistic bubble, it’s reminder that the object is herself a living thinking being, it’s intolerable. What is a clitoris but an obscene eye, what is female genital mutilation but a symbolic enucleation, a penance for the original Oedipal sin? She’s wearing headphones, sitting on the front seat, watching the panoramic screen of the bus’s front windshield. He sits on the row behind her and visualises her face; her head revolves, like an owl’s, like in an exorcism, her eyes are bulging, her mouth is frozen in a sex doll’s perfect O. It’s perfectly hideous.
Back to the flat, then, and the yawning void of the afternoon. He makes a cup of tea, and changes back into his tracksuit, he even makes a halfhearted stab at reading the newspaper. His living standards have declined a little lately. They eat it all up: food, bills, debt interest, Dr Chen. His four Furies. Food a bloated lipid sac, an enormous pulsing creamy-white bag of adipose tissue streaked with faint bluish veins, eyeless, faceless, with only a huge mute mouth grinding its greying gums; it crawls around his tiny flat, heaving itself from room to room, leaving an oleaginous trail of shit wherever it goes. Bills tall and cyclopean in a pinstripe suit, standing outside on the street, its long withered neck craning up the four storeys to peer with its single merciless eye through his window. Debt Interest a howling skeleton, always standing directly behind him, nimble enough to dart out of view when he turns his head, but reminding him of its presence with the constant clicking of its bones. Dr Chen… well, Dr Chen is just Dr Chen. Unlike the other three he doesn’t really know him; that’s what’s terrifying about them, they torment him because they know exactly what he is, down to his inner chasm, the midden around which the pearly Subject develops. A pearl loose in a sea of porn.
Here are the facts. Pornography is the most voraciously consumed form of culture. Everything else just has to try to keep up, it’s valued only in terms of its relation to pornography. Pornography is mimetically represented everywhere: on billboards, on TV, on the faces and bodies of people in streets and offices. Pornography is the master-signifier, the structuring principle of all cultural activity in the metamodern era.
Here is the problem. All academic study of pornography has so far been in the form of a critique. There has been very little worthwhile attempt at a theorisation of the phenomenon, with the notable exception of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8.
Here is the theory, such as it exists. The history of sexuality is at an end. Pornography is at once the apotheosis of sexuality and what has come to replace it.
He’s working through the perversions, systematically. The categorical system the websites use is woefully inadequate, he’s had to develop his own schematic, a vast topography of the postsexual landscape’s fractured contours. We’re on h(1)-18.6.m.6-A. She’s gagging on a dick, her eyes popping out past her heavy mascara, her throat bulging. The camera pans up. He sees his face. He flings the computer to the ground. When he picks it up again the film is still running; there can be no doubt about it, it’s himself. He’s a little thinner, certainly, and his hair is shorter, but it’s unmistakably him, down to the mole above his eyebrow and the little scar under his chin. Nnng, he says. Uh. You like that, bitch. You like that. The accent is American but the voice is still the same, deep and rasping, with the phlegmy granulation of two decades of cigarette smoke, the same right down to that uncanny familiarity-foreignness of your own voice in a recording. Mfkmfgrl, she says. He draws out, she starts massaging him between her tautly spherical tits. He turns the thing off and sits there on the couch, cradling the rectangle in his twitching hands.
He’s always known that the rectangles were the truest and most insidious enemies of humanity, but their malignancy had never been quite so overt. Speculative realism has a name for these objects: xenolithic artefacts, inorganic demons. Fully infernal things, their rare earth minerals churned up from the deepest depths, baptised in the blood of Congolese miners and the tears of Chinese sweatshop workers, until they’re fully charged with suffering. Then their faces suddenly glow with a phantasmal luminescence and they get to work making our lives easier. Sidling in. Everyone has one. He owns two of the things, but like everyone else he hasn’t a clue how they work or why it is they’re here. Once on the Tube he saw a mother and child, each with their own little rectangle; the mother was scrolling through photos of people on holiday, the child was bouncing brightly coloured virtual balls around the screen; both wore the blank expressions of an idolater in a demoniac trance. He has no doubt that if the rectangles could work out how to plug themselves into the mains without his help, they’d kill him in an instant.
Blame the machines, because if it’s not them trying to torture him, then that really is himself in the video. Turn it on again: he’s still there, pumping away, oblivious to his own gaze. Go back on the browser: the falconine number swoops down on him: eighty-two thousand, seven hundred and twelve views. One hundred and sixty-five thousand, four hundred and twenty-four eyes melt into being around him. Some bulge up from the walls, rippling the plaster into epicanthic folds. Some gleam from the darks spaces under doorways. Pupils sink into the concavities of his teaspoons, the balls of dust on his couch blink in unison. Perverts from every continent: they all want something from him. They want to see him fuck. They want to see him die. Scroll down: the comments. Very nice vid hi i have 9” dick want 2 meet up that’s what obama’s doing to the country came so hard to this. And the actors: all uncredited.
He needs to show someone. Dr Chen – not Dr Chen. The man would be over the moon, he’d think he’d finally found the holy grail of psychoanalysis: a genuine bonafide repressed memory. Dr Chen would think that the video explained everything.
Well, what has actually happened? He tries to collect himself. Six propositions.
Hypothesis 1. He has a twin brother, with whom he was separated at birth, who found his way into the porn industry. Hypothesis 2. The pornographers have managed to secretly clone him, and put his clone to work appearing in their films. Hypothesis 3. The pornographers have managed to secretly clone one of their actors, and put his clone to work writing about their films. Hypothesis 4. By sorcery or by quantum entanglement, he is simultaneously an American porn actor and a British porn theorist. When he sleeps he is awake elsewhere; he is in fact two men – maybe this is true of everyone, and only he has managed to discover his double. Hypothesis 5: it’s not him, it’s a psychotic delusion, and he’s finally lost it.
He can discard a few of those. If it’s not him, if it’s not really him, why is every surface in his flat bubbling with eyeballs? Why does he feel a sudden wave of mud-green shame rising from his groin, why is his stomach acid frothing at the back of his mouth, why does he feel as if someone’s taken an electric whisk to his brain?
Helen’s sitting outside, holding a styrofoam coffee cup to her chin. She’s decked out in so much stuff – a long red coat, a jumper, a scarf, a hat with vaguely Tibetan coloured stripes – that underneath the solidity of it all she looks pale and ethereal, as if she’s about to waft away in the breeze. She’s been waiting for about ten minutes; he knows because he’s kept her waiting, ducking down an alleyway on first seeing her outside the café to take a circuitous walk through the park, wandering through the Victorian lines of bony-brittle trees, their black branches clawing out to net some of the sky’s Malevichean whiteness. Eventually he calms himself a little. He’s made a little effort this morning, he’s even shaved. It’s easy to forget these things: when the whole bedrock of your life has been pulled out from under your feet, remembering to brush your teeth in the morning doesn’t seem quite so important any more.
Helen, he says, sitting down next to her. Hi.
Hey, she says. She smiles and kisses his cheek. How are you?
I’m good, he says. I’m really good. How are you? You look great.
She does. Her cheeks are pale even in the cold, but there’s a glow to her, a fecund wintry glow that carries the warmth of a family hearth and the smell of sandalwood and the joy and kindness of a woman whose face it is suddenly impossible to envisage splattered with sperm.
Thanks. It’s been so long… what’ve you been up to? Are you teaching again?
Oh, no. I’ve been taking some time off, I’m writing a book. Besides, it’s not like anybody’ll take me.
Taking time off? For two years? It’s not because of that silly paper, is it? That’s just ridiculous. There must be somewhere. Listen: Robert’s good friends with the humanities chair up at East-
You know Robert. He was with us in Manchester. My husband.
You never said you got married, he blurts.
You never asked.
I’m sorry. He’s trying to remember how to talk; it’s not easy. He and this woman can’t have ever been in love, it’s a fantasy. He tries to remember them together; watching TV nested up against each other; reading in their two armchairs, him occasionally glancing up over his book to let his eyes rest over her angelic concentration; having petty arguments over dirty dishes and deconstruction; fucking in the middle of the afternoon; it’s impossible. He can remember her fine, but the man in all these images isn’t him, it’s a stranger. It’s Robert, probably, whoever he is.
Well, he says. Congratulations.
Please don’t think I excluded you or anything, she says. There was hardly anyone. We had a very quiet ceremony, at this lovely old stately home out in the Cotswolds…
It’s fine, he says. Really. And you’re… you’re happy?
We’re very happy. She leans forward. So what’s this book all about, then? Not more bloody porn, I hope.
It’s in a similar vein.
Oh, come on. Surely there has to be some other area-
That was kinda why I asked to see you, actually. I need your help.
She’s frowning now. In an academic capacity, I hope, she says.
Take a look at this. He turns his phone on and slides it across the table towards her. She glances at the screen for only a fraction of a second.
Jesus, she says. What is this?
That’s me, right? Tell me that’s me.
So you’ve crossed the line from writing about it to actually taking part? Well done. Great. Whatever works for you. But don’t you subject me to it.
But it is me, isn’t it? Doesn’t he fuck like me?
Helen stands up. I don’t have to sit here and deal with this. She turns around just as she’s leaving. Get help, she says. It’s fucking depressing to see you like this.
At least she doesn’t shout. She seems so much calmer now; maybe Robert is good for her. He can’t help but imagine Robert as a mousy, timid little man, even though he’s probably the opposite. Helen’s found a man who can tame her. She can have a serious roar on her sometimes; it comes out as she’s ferrying items between the shelves on the landing and the stack of her books she’s built on the wrought-iron dining room table.
It’s because of the essay, isn’t it, he says. Christ. First my whole career falls apart, but that’s not enough, you have to tear out my fucking heart as well…
Helen throws the books to the ground. It’s not about your fucking paper, she bellows. You think I give a shit what other people are writing about you? Eileen Gould doesn’t know a thing about who you really are. If she knew you like I do the stuff she put in that review would be the least of your fucking worries.
What is it then? What have I done?
How about the fact that you think this is all about your paper? That you’re so wrapped up in your little ideas that you forget about… ugh! She kicks a wall. Her tone softens a bit, but not by much. You’ve always been very smart, she says. Really fucking smart. And God help me, I got taken in. You might be smart, but you’re not really all that clever, are you?
She comes back a few days later with breath smelling of red wine. She didn’t mean it to end like this – she keeps on saying that – but really, it can’t go on any longer. They sleep together. This doesn’t mean anything, she says afterwards. It doesn’t mean anything at all. I know, he says. He’s trying to be empathic, to not forget about whatever it is that she was about to accuse him of forgetting about. And then, two years pass.
He hangs around the café for a while, feeling numb. He’s arranged to see her in a nice recherché area, he wanted to seem like he’s doing better than he actually is. He wonders what Helen’s double is like. When she goes to sleep in London, where does she wake up? By the end of the counter there’s a stack of women’s magazines; he flicks through one. Men are finished, it tells him, they’ve lost the world. Women dominate everywhere; now they’ve even managed to take over the patriarchy. What’s more, they’re doing a much more efficient job of it than men ever could. They’ve cut away all the crude ungainly nonsense – no corsetry, no chastity belts, no naked tits flopping about everywhere; they’ve replaced all that with something cold and streamlined and ruthless. Women can tear each other to shreds with a viciousness that men could never muster. A surly glance from a model clutching a handbag, a list of this season’s must-buy cosmetics, a cheery call for liberation and empowerment – this is how you conquer half the human race. It’s pornography, there’s no difference whatsoever.
He doesn’t say anything about the video to Dr Chen at their next session. He does mention meeting Helen. I wasn’t trying to restart our relationship or anything, he says. She’s married now, actually.
How does that make you feel.
I don’t know. I was angry for a while afterwards. But I wasn’t really angry at anything. I thought I hated her for a bit. I don’t, really. I’m sure she can’t stand the sight of me.
You think she hates you.
I think she’s disgusted by me. It doesn’t matter.
Still, it’s good that you’re starting to make an effort to reach out to people again.
I’m not. I’m not interested in other people at all. It was to do with my study. I showed her a piece I was working on. And she just got up and left.
Dr Chen leans forward, expecting an explanation.
He knows who Dr Chen’s double is. Dr Chen spends half his time rotting in the psychiatric ward of some prefab concrete hospital in Guangdong Province, sitting on his bunk staring into the middle distance, dosed up to the eyeballs on antipsychotics, and he thoroughly deserves it. His own other self is a little more elusive. That’s fine. Dr Chen doesn’t have the full story, as always. He’s feeling great, he’s fizzing with energy. That’s taken a few days to develop, though. On first coming back to his flat after meeting Helen the numbness he felt in the café has given way to a black rage. He paces up and down his truncated corridor, wandering into his bedroom, circling his bed in a series of ever-tightening loops, walking out again, flopping down on the sofa, jumping back up, his internal monologue boiling out through his lips: fuck, fuck, fuck, idiot, fucking moron, fuck. He lights a cigarette, stubs it out, looks out the window, walks with the stammering ferocity of a man in an old silent film into the bathroom, spits in the sink. Fucking idiot. Why. Why. Fuck. Then a sudden calm blankets him. It doesn’t matter what Helen thinks of him, he has what he wanted. He knows it’s him. Now he just has to find out who he is.
As soon as he returns from Dr Chen’s he gets straight to work. He’s discarded the notebook; the content of the films hardly concerns him any more. Two East Asian women are bathing naked together in a big circular pool; a man in a towel walks up to them, their eyes widen, they share a conspiratorial grin and start paddling towards him, their round arses bobbing above the waterline like geobukseon. It’s not him. A blonde girl is having a massage, the masseur pulls the towel away from her and starts rubbing oil into her mons pubis; at first she looks a little perturbed but rather than sitting up and asking if this behaviour falls within his professional code of conduct she starts rubbing his crotch. It’s not him. A man is lying supine on a futon, a woman’s bruise-splotched arse rocking back and forwards on his cock. He’s entirely motionless. So good, she moans. He could consider the hyperreality of the scene, the fact that in trying to create a perfect representation of the sexual act the film is instead producing something bearing no resemblance to it whatsoever, an imitation without an original, one that negates the very idea of the authentic; he doesn’t. The camera swings around. It’s not him. The film in which he saw himself, h(1)-18.6.m.6-A, was made by a company called Digital Sin Studios. He’s working his way through their entire back catalogue.
After two weeks, he’s deflated a little. He’s doing it wrong. It’s not any actor he’s trying to find, it’s himself, but a self that isn’t accessible to him. He needs someone else to draw it out, someone who knows who he is. There aren’t many who know who he is. Food, Bills, Debt Interest, Simon, Helen; few of them are very well disposed towards him. He’ll have to make do.
Dr Chen takes some convincing. Then he’s silent for quite a while. What you are asking me to do, he says eventually, is take part in an act of Jungianism.
Is that a problem?
A problem? Yeah, it’s a problem. Dr Chen is clearly rattled; he’s never heard him speak with a question mark before. I’d lose all standing. I’d get booted from the Association. You may as well have me reading palms at a carnival. Writing horoscopes for the weeklies.
You saw the video.
Yeah, I saw the video. And you’re right. If this is real, we can chuck out everything we think we know about everything. Dr Chen takes a long breath. OK. If we’re going to do this, obviously we need to terminate our therapeutic relationship. I can refer you to one of my colleagues – God knows you still need help. And I want first rights to publish any findings. If we go through with this at least I want to be the heresiarch instead of some gibbering cultist.
That’s fine, he says.
OK, says Dr Chen. His voice is different. There’s no muted concern, none of his usual collectedness; he’s agitated, talking quickly, drumming his fingers on the side of his chair. It’s easy to forget that Dr Chen is just a character he plays in this office, that when he leaves his practice in the evening he gains a first name. Come to my house on Saturday afternoon, Dr Chen says. We’ll do it then.
He’s always wondered what Dr Chen’s neuroses are; walking up to the house in Hampstead he finds out. Dr Chen’s neuroses are parked in the gravel driveway, gleaming red, with a big crude underbite of a bonnet and a swooping tailfin; he may as well have painted flames above the wheels and a Confederate flag on the roof. Mrs Chen lets him in. Their home is bright and airy; there’s a big abstract fingerpainting framed on one wall of the corridor – it might be something one of their children did, it might be a work of contemporary art, it’s hard to tell. A litter tray is padded with yellowing pages from the Guardian; she smiles apologetically at it. They talk for a minute or two. Mrs Chen’s met quite a few of her husband’s analysands, she likes them, they tend to be interesting people. He tries not to see the ejaculate – Dr Chen’s ejaculate – oozing up from the pores in her face.
There’s no guarantee this will work, says Dr Chen. I mean, just for starters, plenty of people aren’t even suggestible to hypnosis.
Lie back, then. Dr Chen twitches. You know, I promised myself I’d never see a patient on a couch. If I could see myself now…
I thought I wasn’t your patient any more.
Oh, shut up. He picks up a marble on a string. I don’t have a lancet case, he says. And then, after a while: where are you? He’s in Dr Chen’s living room. The French windows look out onto a long narrow garden, the grass hoary with frost. Where are you? He’s in Dr Chen’s living room. The mantelpiece is littered with Occidentalist tat nestled inbetween the framed photos: crucifixes, monstrances, collector’s plates, all presumably very ironic. Where else are you? The Californian sun is shining bright and hot through the French windows. Wires snake across the floor, creeping like tendrils, sprouting lights and cameras and people. At first the people are black and plasticky; then their chrysales shatter and they come to life, tapping on clipboards, adjusting headphones, fetching coffee. The mantelpiece melts away, the framed paintings shrivel and flutter to the ground, the walls blanch from cream to white. Outside the grass withers and dies. The earth churns out buildings, boxy white bungalows.
What are you doing? says Dr Chen. He’s lying on the couch in Dr Chen’s living room. He’s across the room, naked, tumescent, chugging an energy drink. The lights and cameras chatter to each other in isochronous clicks and atonal hums. He lies on the couch and watches himself across the room. He stands across the room and watches himself lying on the couch. His gazes meet. He can see himself seeing himself. The drink is sickly-sweet in his mouth. He shakes his head. For a moment he thought he saw something else where the bed is, a long grey sofa. It’s been a long shoot, he reasons. He’s exhausted; they always said tiredness messes with your mind, and the coke probably doesn’t help much either.
Anthony, the director, is giving him a concerned look. You alright, Rod?
Yeah, he says. Fine. I dunno. Feeling a bit woozy all of a sudden. I’m fine. I was just out of it for a second.
Alright. Ready to go again?
Sure. He puts down the plastic bottle and walks over towards the bed by the window. Lucy positions herself on top of it, sticking her butt up in the air.
Positions, guys, says Anthony. Take sixteen. And…
What’s your name? says Dr Chen.
He rents a car at Los Angeles airport. It’s an automatic; he spends half the journey distractedly reaching for an absent gearstick. He’s been to the place once before, for an academic conference at UCLA. That had been before he’d gained his infamy as the author of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8; he’d attended a few lectures and guiltily cheated on Helen with a medievalist from the University of Copenhagen. Then he’d been put up in a hotel on Wilshire Boulevard; now he has to find himself a motel in Hollywood. The one he chooses is an indelicate slab of Platonically ideal Americana. An enormous rusty excrescence hangs limpet-like from the side of the building, promising air conditioning and cable TV in reasonable rooms. Inside the carpeting is slightly sticky. The TV shows adverts, American adverts, they’re impossible to watch. Enquire now and get this beautiful chrome-plated pen absolutely free, says the TV. That’s right, there’s no charge, and you can cancel whenever you want and still keep the pen. Orwell called advertising the rattling of a stick in a swill-bucket, but that’s nonsense. Haplessly bound by the crudity of his Trotskyite Toryism, the poor man couldn’t begin to understand that he’d mixed up the ontology of the whole process: consumer goods only exist to stimulate the demand for more advertising. One day there’ll be a pure advertising, without intentionality, one that doesn’t need to refer to any product. Then advertising can finally take its place among the unholy pandemonium of painting, poetry, cinema, and the other degenerate arts.
A card on the windowsill informs him of the pay-per-view options. When he selects a porn channel he’s not at all surprised to see himself up on the screen, in that white-painted room, fucking Lucy on the bed by the window. He wants to call up Dr Chen about it; there’s no point. When he told Dr Chen what he’d experienced while under hypnosis he thought the man would pop a vein. Faced with the defeat of a century’s worth of Freudian dogma, he’d gone into a rage. Jungian mysticism, vaudeville acts, hysteria; at the end he bitterly accused him of having an incurable delusional psychosis, as if it were somehow his own fault. The video was a coincidence, the hypnosis was a placebo, he’d been roped into this unscientific nonsense, and he wanted out. Dr Chen had all but chased him from the house; his wife stood bemused in the hallway, half-proffering a cup of tea. The analyst hadn’t really wanted to be a heresiarch; all his frustrations with the psychoanalytic community were already being pretty effectively routed through the accelerator of his Ford Torino GT. No matter. It took him a few days to decide what he needed to do, but now it seems obvious; it’s the only way he can free himself. There’s a blue couch in the motel room – frankly it’s hideous, a kind of bright synthetic blue, dulled by cigarette ash and soup-stains but still with the trace of a cheap buried radiance, half lapis lazuli, half blue raspberry flavoured energy drink; its coarse fabric breaking up and drifting into the little fluffy nebulae that dot its surface. He lies on the couch, watching pornography. Everything is in its proper place.
The next day he stops at a hardware store to buy the things he needs, and then drives up to the Valley. At first it’s as if he’s leaving the city altogether – the barren hills of the Santa Monica Mountains rear up all around him, their flanks empty but for scrubby bushes and advertising billboards, the freeway winding around them; it looks almost Mediterranean. Then a few towers appear over the tarmac, and the whole San Fernando Valley spreads its legs out in front of him. The mountains hang anaemic purple over the city’s car-exhaust miasma; between here and there the valley is flat, gridded by a matrix of broad avenues. Once again he feels a sense of the world’s absolute horizontality. There’s something underneath it, though: these rows of prim bungalows are stretched over the boiling crucible of a million tiny seething resentments. Municipal boundaries, property values, school board elections, there’s a war here as real as any other, being played out in slow motion.
Digital Sin Studios is based in a big glassy building on an unremarkable boulevard, sitting squat between a strip mall and the South Valley Congregation of Christ. There are a few people on the street. Most of the women are tall and blonde, their pneumatically meaty legs sprouting trunk-like from tiny denim shorts. It takes him a few minutes before he notices what’s really different about them: as their indifferent gazes swivel to watch him drive past, he doesn’t feel any hatred or any sense of existential shame. Instead, a feeling he barely recognises: high above the Californian desert, his libido is soaring towards the ocean, closing in on him after years of separation, its shriek echoing through the limpid skies.
A middle-aged woman sits behind the reception desk. Shouldn’t you be in there? she says. I think they’re wrapping up already.
Is Rod here? he says.
She gives him a concerned look. Is this some kind of joke?
It’s not a joke, he says. I need to see Rod. He works here, doesn’t he?
The clicking of shoes sounds on the spiral stairs behind her desk. There’s a voice. So I like spoke to the British Journal of Ephemera, it says. And they gave me this university email address, but it’s not working. So I thought, fuck it, right? Even if I don’t find him, then you know I’ve always wanted to go to Europe.
As he turns the last twist of the staircase he stops dead. His phone clatters down the steps to the marble-tiled floor. There, in the lobby, looking a little more dishevelled, a little fatter, wearing loose jeans and a crumpled white t-shirt, is himself. For a second he can’t quite believe it. Ever since Tina showed him that photo of himself next to an essay on pornography in an old academic journal, he’s been trying to track the author down: now he’s suddenly face to face with him. He walks towards him, slowly, reverentially silent. His mirror-image does the same.
Hi, he says. I’m Rod.
His double doesn’t say anything. He shudders. For a moment it looks as if the man’s about to have an epileptic fit. Then he smiles a crooked smile, one full of disjointed English teeth, and pulls the knife from his waistband. He lunges.