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Jim Froydon’s Lines

New fiction by Thomas McMullan, with art by Anastasia Kashian.

 

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Jim Froydon’s Lines, with uncompromising force of vision, delivers a shot in the arm to the American sitcom – a genre that has become stale, predictable and ubiquitous. Froydon’s fantastic show premiering tonight on British television does no less than take the basic form of the sitcom and flip it on its head.

We are all used to seeing the interiors of flats, cafes, restaurants, offices. These are where the scenes of shows happen, the places where the characters meet to joke, argue, fall in love. How daring for a show to go against this. Because what Lines does, and what has already built a definite buzz across the Atlantic, is to to limit us to the places between. We follow the characters from the moment they leave the door of one location, walking to the coffee house, catching the bus to the office, and we leave them the moment they arrive at their destination. There are few words, maybe the occasional conversation with a stranger, an enquiry about the price of a return ticket. Sometimes the characters have tears in their eyes, sometimes they can’t stop themselves from laughing.

Was that her voice? I heard it coming from the room.

I can’t hear a thing. 

I thought I heard her. I could swear it was her.

Your hands are sweating. It’s making me nervous. 

You should be nervous.

Is she groaning now? Are they covering her mouth?

The equipment isn’t infallible. 

Many of the episodes take place on public transport. The camera pays as much attention to the parts of the characters’ bodies as it does to seat-cushions and handrails. The heavy eyelids of a character come into the frame for a few moments before the camera cuts to the pale blue tessellated pattern on the floor of the train. What might sound like a tedious experience is surprisingly easy to watch and, with complete honesty, I found the gentle rocking of the carriage in these drawn-out sequences to be incredibly soothing. I’ll admit that as a character drifted into a short sleep so did I, and when my head jolted back to consciousness it was just in time to see the same action performed by the character on the screen.

They pulled it out. The shape of an egg. She was tired. It stank.

She almost passed out but the stink of it kept her awake. 

It was coated in a wet film that dripped over the midwife’s hands. She passed it to the doctor. 

Is she okay now?

In the end all he could do was shrug. It has a heartbeat, he said. It has a heartbeat but it doesn’t have a heart.    

The nervousness about each trip is often palpable, as if the characters are on the way to an imminent breakup or a family death at the hospital. In the first two episodes given to reviewers I followed several different characters who reappeared throughout. There was a twenty-something lady with bleached blonde hair, a bald middle-aged father, a pregnant woman, a handsome man with a neatly trimmed beard. These people, although never given names, quickly became familiar. When the pregnant woman stared out of bus window I wanted to know why her bottom lip quivered. When she sighed and her breath momentarily clouded the cold glass I wanted to know why she sighed so deeply.

About a foot, a foot and a half. Egg-shaped. A round base and it tapers up towards the top. It’s smooth. Yesterday it was smoother. It’s hard. Metal. A hard plastic. When we first brought it home it seemed a lot softer. It’s gotten harder. There are ridges now, around the base. 

How does she.

What?

Breastfeed. How does she breastfeed?

I don’t know. Ask her.

Puckered. A puckered hole. It’s reported that there’s a puckered hole. Is this true?

I think there’s a hole. 

Is it puckered?

I don’t know what you mean.

Froydon’s genius comes from preventing the audience from having any clear insight into the characters’ minds. It would seem all too easy to continue following the characters once they pass through the front-doors of their homes. There were times while watching the first episode that I shouted violently at the screen. I screamed at the moment the bleach-haired young lady turned the key into what I assumed was her flat.I thought a glimpse of her actual life might slip from its hiding place behind the door. My body shivered close to the edge of the seat, I waited for those precious clues, my head gripped by my hands. But suddenly the camera cut to the swollen paunch of a man waiting patiently in the snow for his bus to arrive. I threw a pillow at the screen. If I’d had a stone I’d have thrown that too. I turned my computer off for a few moments, stood outside in the garden. I looked at sun, at one thousand colours of blue sky. I would have stayed there but, as if the programme had wrapped an invisible cable around my neck, I eventually drifted back inside to continue to the end.

I have to plug her in every day.

Will you listen to yourself?

It’s what the doctor said. 

And what if you don’t plug it in? 

She wilts. Don’t even think about convincing me to stop breastfeeding, because I can’t stand to see her wilt. I won’t do that, don’t ask me to do that.  

I’m worried about you. What if it makes you sick, what if it hurts you somehow?

She won’t hurt me.

You don’t know that. For all you know it could bite. Maybe there’s a needle. 

You don’t understand. There isn’t anything that could hurt us, no secrets. 

What did the doctor say about the keys? 

I’ve tried to type on them, I’ve tried again and again, but nothing happens. I’ve typed out whole paragraphs but nothing comes up on the screen.

Janet Malory of The New Yorker who, in her already famous interview with Jim Froydon, ended her questioning with a swift left-hook to the show-runner’s jaw, has said that Lines offers an antidote. An antidote to modern life? To a sickness? What exactly it offers an antidote to has been picked apart and argued over by nearly every American with access to a keyboard and, if you haven’t already done so, after tonight’s premiere you’ll be able to join that debate. What is clear is that there is a cure somewhere in this programme. After getting through the second episode, after coming to terms with the fact that I was never going to see the interior lives of these characters, I felt a definite weight lift from my shoulders. I felt as if I was floating up to the ceiling.

She’s grown. She’s the size of a table and she’s lost a lot of weight, she’s flatter than she’s ever been. Her buttons work now. I’ve registered my details. God knows how I managed it but I’ve registered. 

It wanted your details?

I wasn’t sure what I was doing. 

Is it fine just to put your details in like that? 

Yes.

Did you put your wife’s details in as well?

Of course I did. That was the first thing I did. 

And bank details?

I put in my shoe size, eye colour, favourite film. There were pages of things I put in. Every time I wrote one thing it asked me to write another.

For a specific example of Froydon’s technique I want to talk about a moment in the first episode that has lingered in my thoughts. Somewhere near the middle of the hour run-time there is a short sequence where a woman rides in an ambulance. I took her to be roughly in her thirties. We do not see much of her. There are glimpses of her arms, her hands. Her body is covered with a blanket.  Mostly we focus on her face. There are no windows in the ambulance. There are no sights outside. A man sits beside the woman, a paramedic. The woman seems to be a patient, a victim, needing to be rushed to casualty. She is pale, sweating. The make-up around her eyes has slightly run. On the other side of the woman, his hand resting on her shoulder, is another man. Perhaps this man is her husband, or lover. Perhaps he is her brother. We never see more than his hand but the tightness of the grip is noticeable. The noise of the siren is loud. The woman shakes, her eyes focus on something in the distance. It is a moment of high drama or, perhaps more specifically, it is a moment teetering at the threshold of high drama, but after about a minute, once they have arrived at the hospital and the doors open, once the reasons and consequences for this woman of being in the ambulance are about to be exposed, we are unceremoniously taken away.

Someone is knocking at the door.

Go back to sleep.

Someone is there. I heard it. What if they come to take her?

No-one is coming. 

I wrote in her today. I wrote some horrible things in her. 

We don’t know where it goes.

What if they come to take her away? After the things I’ve said to her. After the things I wrote.

Yet we do see the woman from the ambulance again later in the same episode. There are no signs of an accident. She sits alone in a back of a taxi and she reads a newspaper. There is a look of concentration on her face. What story she is reading in the newspaper we cannot see. The lines of her brow furrow and the corners of her mouth tighten. There is no hint of fear. Her face is immaculate. There are no tears in her eyes, no smudged make-up. She wears an elegant blue dress, as if returning from an evening party, yet daylight streams in through the windows. Perhaps she is going to work. There is no sign of the man who gripped her shoulder so tightly, there is no hint of whatever illness she may or may not have suffered. Whatever problem caused the ambulance to take her to the hospital has been resolved without our knowledge. Froydon doesn’t give us the answers. He doesn’t let us know.

I wrote in her for hours. I sat there and I answered all of the questions she had. I let my hands touch her ridges, her soft keys. I felt the body which we made. There’s so much love behind her screen, I know it’s there. If I could open her up and see it.

We both know it’s there. 

If I could only hear her speak back I’d be sure of it. We’ve given her so much of us. Do you understand me?

I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know what went on when the characters reached their destinations; these places they have no clear reason to reach. But their thoughts were inaccessible to me. If there was a reason for the characters to go to the office or a bar, to ride to the hospital or to get a taxi home, it was given offstage, away from the camera. No matter how hard I pleaded at my screen there was no definite reason for the characters to travel from A to B. Lines forced me to accept that. It forces us to accept that. What happens before and after these moments is not certain.

 

She’s crying. 

No-one is crying.

She’s humming through the wall. Can’t you hear it? There’s a low hum. Listen. There. She’s crying. It’s all because of me. After all the information we’ve given to her. We’ve been so honest. 

What did you do?

Her screen shines. Her mouth opens and closes. She’s so hungry. Her heart beats through the casing and when I place my fingers on her keys I feel it surge beneath. She’s so hungry. It wears me out. I typed. The sight of that mouth. I couldn’t look. A tissue, a towel. I pushed my fingers in until her mouth couldn’t close. I. What. I hit the keys. I hit and hit until her screen went black.  

I was locked out. I accepted that.

And yet when I fell asleep that night, when I closed my eyes and lay in the dark the woman was there in my dreams. The taxi I’d seen before had taken her to my home and when she arrived she’d climbed the stairs, entered my room. In the dim light of the evening she’d undressed, unzipping the outfit she wore to let it slip down the skin of her shoulders.

I watched it fall past her hips, down her legs and onto the floor. She lay in my bed and she reached out for me to join her.

Stay with me. Close your eyes. Try to dream.

I’m trying.

Rest your head. 

I’m trying. Someone is knocking at the door.

You’re hearing things. 

Someone is knocking at the door.

It’s going to be talked about. It will make Froydon a household name. Because by the end of the programme you will feel drained, as if you have spilled part of yourself onto the screen. You will feel drained and yet you will feel lighter.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thomas McMullan is a London-based writer. His stories have been published by The Stockholm Review, The Literateur, Cadaverine Magazine and Mint Magazine. His work has been translated by The British Council into Chinese. He writes freelance for The Guardian and has had work produced at The ICA and The British Museum. He has collaborated with visual artists in London and Beijing and is currently looking for an agent for his first novel. More of his work can be found at thomasmcmullan.com and he tweets at @thomas_mac.

ABOUT THE ARTIST
Anastasia Kashian is a self-taught artist, and failed anthropologist, based in West Wales and Andalucia. You can find her on Twitter, and see more of her work on Facebook, and on her website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 31st, 2015.