:: Buzzwords

23/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 66: Des Barry

Wagtails and Minuets
By Des Barry.

 

At this time of year in Australia, the position of sunrise from our balcony window drifts north-east as winter approaches. Before the sun appears through the sparser branches of the trees above the rooftop horizon, it lights up the sky in pale pinks, in orange and blue. I tend to wake up around 5.30am so I usually see the dawn. This early, the path along Port Philip Bay and the low grassy area beside it, aren’t so crowded with runners and dog walkers. If I can get in a walk, and the weather’s calm, I can breathe in the watery space and stillness; or if it’s stormy, I can breathe in sea spray and wind. Doing the same walk every day, makes me appreciate the changes in light, in temperature, the air on my skin. The presence of Covid-19 in the world makes the enjoyment even more acute especially when, at the age of sixty-five, I’m just about in the demographic that seems to have less chance of surviving the virus should I get an acute case of it. I’ve been in lockdown since March 3rd.

I’d flown back to Australia from the UK on February 28th. In London, there had been talk about Coronavirus in Wuhan but nobody seemed that worried about it. I’d been in London for about six weeks. I’d also been in Madrid for a week or so: to the Prado for the Goya exhibition; to the Thyssen-Bornomisza Museum to revisit the Expressionists; a day in Toledo on a pilgrimage to all the El Greco sites. Nobody was worried about Coronavirus. My friend Diego said, ‘One day a virus will wipe out humanity. But not this one’. We laughed about it. I felt fit, and even surprised, that I hadn’t been sick for even one day. On the previous year’s winter visit to Europe, I’d had flu for about three weeks. In Britain, I heard that for most people, the illness was like a mild version of the flu.

As a resident returning to Australia, I was waved through immigration and customs. Apparently, travellers from China and South Korea were being tested for Covid-19 but nobody from anywhere else. Back in Melbourne, getting over jetlag, I got a haircut, went to the dentist, caught up with friends. Then my throat became sore. I thought nothing of it at first. I went to an event with about four hundred and fifty people. By the next day I could hardly talk. I developed a persistent dry cough. I still felt fine but by now the general social anxiety level was rising. I thought I should call the government Department of Health hotline… mainly for reassurance. The nurse asked me where I’d travelled and a lot about my symptoms. Some of the symptoms she asked me about sounded terrifying. I didn’t have them. At the end of this long interview, she said that it I didn’t need a test. I should just stay at home, take paracetamol and drink plenty of water. I thought, yeah, I’m right. It’s just laryngitis.

A week later the government of Victoria mandated tests for any traveller who’d returned to Australia from anywhere in the previous fourteen days. I called the local hospital hotline at 4pm. I was at the hospital by 5pm. I was met at the testing center by triage nurses who took my temperature, checked my heart rate, and sent me for the swab test. There weren’t many people in front of me. The doctor asked me questions about my symptoms. She gave me the swab test — deep in the nose and the back of the throat. She told me I’d get the results in 48 hours. On the way out, the nurse who took my final form said it might take 72 hours to get the result. I was out of the hospital by 6pm.

Back home, I checked the government website. Because the labs were busy, it might take five days. I was now concerned that if I had the disease that I might have spread it without knowing. I wasn’t worried for myself because I still felt relatively well. It was a relief when I got a text message five days later to say that the test was negative and I didn’t need to self-isolate any more. Mostly I felt relief that I couldn’t have infected anybody in those early blasé days. Now I became aware that, when I tested negative, it meant I could still get the virus. And that I’m still in a relatively high-risk age group.

Now, when I do those daily walks on the sea shore, I’m acutely aware of each small change in the everyday routine: a wagtail that dips and bobs around my feet for about twenty meters along the shrub-line; the social distancing minuets; the mindlessness of the huffing macho joggers; a woman runner in a tense state of high anxiety, her eyes fixed on the screen in her outstretched hand; the man who lives in a camper in the car park who calls a good morning to me. Back in the apartment, I have to look at the Internet. I worry about my friends in Britain.

It took me two hours to get tested in Australia and I’m a civilian. I’m horrified at the complacency and sheer fucking cruelty of the British government that still refuses to test frontline medical staff. That there isn’t enough PPE for them. I’m horrified at the media’s sycophancy and lack of responsibility. I’m horrified that the British public feels the government is doing a good job. I’m horrified that so many of the people clapping for nurses and doctors voted for the party that cut the NHS for ten years, a government that continues with its clusterfuck of incompetence. Or worse, in its thrall to a right-wing accelerationist and its own disaster capitalists who are already making billions of pounds as they prey on failed businesses. From this distance, a vast number of imbeciles in Britain seem to be revelling in a dance of death that’s like a version of Dad’s Army painted by Hieronymous Bosch… comically hideous… and dangerous to my sane friends and family, to thousands of innocent people of all ages.

To keep my own sanity, I buy groceries once a week, I cook good food, I eat with my partner. Because I can. I’ve lost five kilos by healthy eating. For the past four weeks we’ve been watching one episode a night from the suitably gothic seven series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: the Jeremy Brett version. I’m still having trouble deciding what to read. Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller was the last novel I read and I’m reading Homo Faber slowly so slowly. But a breakthrough came this week in being able to write again: a full first draft of a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction in ages.

While Australia is getting this epidemic under control, Camus’ The Plague comes to mind, inevitably, to keep things in perspective. When the plague is just about over, Dr Rieux’s friend, Jean Tarrou, gets sick and dies. I’m aware something like this can happen to anyone. Can happen to me. We live in extraordinary times, present to the cruelty and compassion of this incredible world we live in. Faced with the real possibility of my own imminent death, I reflect on a life that I’m happy to have led: people, places, fuck-ups, books written and read. I’d quite like it to go on. Lockdown is fine.

@farsouthproject

22/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 65: Charles Leitner

So Fondly Do They Sing
By Charles Leitner.

 

What do you think of the ship Pequod, the ship of the soul of an American?
Many races, many people, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes.
Seeing stars sometimes.
– D.H. Lawrence

The city is quiet and the nights seem to have been returned to the rats and rabbits. The train cars are all but empty. Except for a handful of passengers, they roll along mostly on their own. Steady. And like the factories still churning, they are a good reminder that modern civilization in some form still continues.

Near the hospital, there is a man returning to his shift. He looks tiresome and worried. He holds a cup of coffee in his hand and trudges solemnly through the entrance revolving door. There are drives waiting along the streets. Patiently sitting idle, scrolling through the endless confines of the internet.

A man on the subway wears what appears to be a mosquito repellent mask. He grows nervous each time someone boards. After only a few stops, he departs.

There are postings on churches, bars, and restaurants, saying they’ve closed for now, but the construction still continues. The great machine is still ticking. The noise from this division of labor has become a fitting alarm for those who now work from home.

The nights have gone and turned to wonder, the mornings just the same. The daylights creeping fingers are welcomed by the birds. They don’t seem to mind the change. At the waking hours of the day they can be heard singing back to one another. They call out:

I am here.

You are there.

We are near.

So fondly do they sing. To know that we are still among the living is such a beautiful and bitter thing.

The sun has come and it seems now spring comes with it. February’s winds have gone away and now grows our desire to crawl out from the bleak confines of winter’s hollow. As the weather warms a deep anxiety awakens. We want to go out. We want to spend the first days of spring in the parks and bars listening to music in our sundresses and warm weather attire.

I am able to chat briefly with my neighbor. We talk with one another from our balconies. He is below. I am above. After a moment we decide it is ok and he joins me on my own. The city is beyond us and the lights still glimmer in the dark. We drink beer and talk quietly, trying in our own right to make sense of something which makes little sense at all. Something beyond any layman’s control. It appears we have both acquired a touch of angst, but we are trying to withhold it. What a terrible grim uncertainty brings.

He makes a joke about him and his girlfriend considering their options. He wonders half-heartedly if they’re going to need to buy guns and I make a lame reference to Warren Zevon. We both try to divert from the topic.

He is from Turkey and lives with his girlfriend. He moved here nearly five years ago with his mother and father and has been working a job in IT at Harvard. He is lucky. At least for now, he is still able to work.

A few nights ago, I am able to sleep with the windows open. The air was even and damp from a few days of rain and I felt a bit more at ease listening to the soft churning of the world. A night lark called from a distance and I could hear it as it fluttered across the moonlit sky. Though I could not see her, it is an accompanying sound in a world gone somber and quiet.

The nights are still. There are a few clouds which streak across the sky and cover what little light the moon provides. The hotels have gone dark. Only a few rooms are lit. An oasis in the blackness of their façade.

In the morning, children play in a sprinkler. Their laughter has livened the corner of the world I have found myself in. Where construction cranes swoon against the sky and the cars, barely a whisper along the highway, pass in ever dwindling numbers.

Spring showers have arrived. Lightning and the rolling thunder. It is starting to feel more and more like the days of old. When there was nothing but hemlock groves. When everything at night is silent except for the chatter of the natural world. The thunder booms and across the sky mist has turned to fog and the long building spires are now masked in an abundance of molecules.

I think to myself, this is not so bad, but then I walk past the hospital again. An ambulance driver takes a break for a smoke. A gurney rests vacant outside his van. There is no rush to put it back in again. That means more patients. That means more pressure. That means more bodies.

There are several television crews waiting down street. The producers stay warm in their cars as cameramen set up a shot with the hospital entrance framed in the background. An anchorwoman applies makeup in her rearview mirror. She’s in her mid-thirties and pretty. This could be her big break. This might make her career.

Outside a nearby clinic, the congregation of bums has not dwindled. The destitute are in bright spirits. They are happy just to have made it through another day. They seem to mock the other walking dead. They seem to think, hell, what took ya’ll so long. Welcome to the damned party.

My mother and father are in lockdown like the rest. “Can I tell you a good story?” she asks him.

“Sure,” my father says.

“Ok,” she begins. “So just the other day, there’s this man…”

“Is this a true story?”

“Yes. It was a woman’s birthday on his street. She’s ninety. Everyone is on lockdown and because of her age she mustn’t go outside. She can’t do anything.”

My mother is in the middle of making surgical masks out of my father’s old T-shirts. The iron is steaming and as she tells her story, she waves the thing around and small puffs of water vapor spout into the ceiling like smoke signals. They reach the ceiling, scuttle about, stretch, and dissipate.

“So this man decides it might be nice to give this woman a proper celebration. Proper in today’s sense, that is. So with white chalk he draws a handful of circles on the street outside of this woman’s window. The circles are each six feet apart. After he is finished, he calls on a number of neighbors to occupy the spaces he has drawn and they sing to her happy birthday.”

She goes back to work ironing the cloth on the table. Her hands move slow and the iron snorts as it runs over ripples in the white linen.

“Isn’t that just lovely?” she asks.

“Yes it is.”

My mother watches as I wrestle with their dog. She is still busy making her masks. “When I am that old, will you care for me like you do that dog?”

“Not a chance,” I say joking.

My mother and father have just entered the twilight of their lives and are soon approaching the point where we dip beyond the horizon, like falling suns, towards whatever lies behind the great beyond. They would rather enjoy their time with friends and family. Of course, they are thankfully with each other, but there is little to discuss. Like most everyone, they would rather speak about far different topics. Like sport, film, literature, art, or poetry. They are not reclusive creatures like the writer they had borne. They yearn to be among one another laughing all about, surrounded by those they’ve gone and made close.

We are starting to hear more frequent sirens. Even in a city, the blaring sound seems to come more and more. Sometimes two or three begin to call at once and you can tell by the way the sound reverberates across the cities concrete, that they are moving in opposite directions. They are signaling the growing panic. Panic which seems now to cling to us like lice to a stricken mutt. We can’t seem to shake it and it grows stronger by the hour.

There is not much anyone can do. Although there are still some of us out working in the fray, most are feeling helpless and afraid. There is little we can do except wait for the passing of the storm.

There are words flowing forth from other places in the world. Endless reports of news and rumors of what it is like elsewhere. News of bodies being burned in the streets of Ecuador. Buzzards flying overhead. Graves amass once more at Potter’s Field. Coins of Judas still being paid. Rumors from China of apartment doors having been welded shut with their tenants still inside. They are left there, imprisoned in the tiny worlds of their own creations, left to wait for this all to pass.

Here in America it is much different. This Great American Machine cannot be burdened to a halt because of such terrible death. It seems to have been this way for some time. Today’s American mind wishes not to be hindered by the dead and dying. Death comes still, barely, like a whisper. Murmurings of a friend who has succumbed to this disease. A son, a daughter, a mother or father. A husband, a wife, a neighbor or colleague. The dead seem to disappear and fade like a silent breeze through springtime leaves. Their names go along as well and soon become lost in the bowels of the ether, and in the growing sections of the paper’s obituaries.

It is late now and time for me to go home. Along the bridge which extends over the River Charles, a string of subway cars rolls by. There is not a single soul inside. It appears the train has ferried its final worker bee, that diligent nine to fiver, over to the other side. As I bike back to my apartment I think to myself, after all this I wonder if those chalk circles will make it through all the rain.

@leitner_charles

21/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 64: Monique Roffey

Lockdown
By Monique Roffey.

As I write this, the UK is coming up to the end of its fifth week in lockdown. I will be fifty-five tomorrow, 24th April. At high risk, with asthma and a rare autoimmune illness, Churg Strauss Syndrome, I’m glad I made it to this age. However, in these times the subject of age has a much edgier significance. Thank God, I’m not nearer 60, is a quiet thought. Better odds. At least I’m blood type O, etc, etc. All these selfish and self-shoring up thoughts have come and gone, and come and gone, and I’m not necessarily proud of them. In short, what are my chances of survival? From the outset, I knew what catching Covid-19 could mean. I’ve seen what my NHS medical files look like, huge stuffed tomes wider than a hand’s grasp. I know how weak my chest is, how, daily, I rely on my inhalers to get by. When, mid-March, news of lockdown was imminent, I acted fast and bought myself a nebuliser. When it arrived from Amazon weeks later, I felt a little more secure. Now, they are impossible to get hold of. Asthmatics, worldwide, know that Covid-19 is a perilous threat.

However, early March, I came down with a cold. It seemed to slip inside me in a dream one Sunday night. I dreamt my cold. It didn’t arrive like normal colds, in my throat, lots of sneezing and then a clotted head for days; sodden tissues and bleary eyes. I was conscious of its arrival, during slumber, a strange and magical experience. No sneezing. Days later, I experienced a cloying sore throat. Worried, I cancelled a reading at Essex Lit-fest. They understood. I dialed 111 but I was told unless I’d been in direct contact with someone from Italy or China, I had no chance of getting this virus. That was March 5th. Ho ho. It’s usual for me to not shake off a cold. This one lasted a month. I had bouts of fatigue, too. I catch almost anything going around. So I’ve been trapped in a double bind: wondering if I’ve already had the virus, mildly, and living in mortal dread of catching it. Actually, the mortal dread has worn off. You can’t live at such a high pitch of fear for weeks. Something like acceptance has replaced this, a letting go. Also, hope. The longer I don’t get this, the more likely I will receive good NHS care; early on there was talk of ‘triage’. A friend had blithely said, “Mon, if you get this and end up in hospital, they’ll take one look at your notes, and bump you off”.

Nice.

I’ve worked mostly from home the past twenty years, writing novels, editing and teaching online, so I had, at first, thought lockdown would be okay, psychologically and emotionally. I assumed I’d cope better than most. But the enormity of what this new virus means, its existential scope, has meant that lockdown hasn’t been at all easy. I’ve been constantly distracted, unable to focus much. I’ve slept erratically. There have been mood swings. Most of my friends have reported the same. I live without a television, but the news has been so compelling, especially in the early weeks, I found myself listening to BBC Radio 4 on the hour. I’ve been constantly searching the Internet for more than what we are being fed, trying to see if a long shot view is possible, trying to read what science is available for the lay reader, and trying to work out who to trust.

Since those early days of lockdown, I’ve also made a will. I’ve decided who gets what, should this virus take me. I’m single and childfree. I reckon if not now, when? This is the time to do this. I also wrote down what kind of ‘after party’ I’d like after my cremation. I’m a Buddhist, so no church please. Only now do I realise how important this is. Imagine being buried in a coffin and having a service in a church! I needed to tell people; no, certain procedures would really not be appropriate. Not for me. Please. Burn me and celebrate my life. No one wear black. I even chose who would officiate the party and where. Sadly, none of this will count, should I end up sick enough to die from this virus. I’ve watched nurses on Channel 4 clips talk of the end of death conversations they’ve had with those in ICU. Covid-19 deaths are heartbreakingly lonely. So are Covid-19 funerals. As a high-risk person, facing possible death has been ‘the thing’ of lockdown, or maybe mostly the early weeks. @HighRiskCovid19 is a hashtag I’ve used a lot, and I was part of a short film for Huff Post. Like all the other high riskers, I’m already ill. I live a more or less normal life, given essential and ongoing medication. When I finally received ‘the letter’ from my GP, I had to sit down. Go away. I went for a very long walk in the spring sunshine. Can you refuse to die? I think that’s how I’ll beat it. Utter denial. I watched Covid-19 survivor Pink, also an asthmatic, on Ellen, say that she’d done many mad bad things in her life, and “to go like this?” I get that too.

Actually, I have found some solace. Pandemic, a Netflix docu-series is outstanding. It puts the average person, the non-virologist, in the picture with what we are dealing with. Filmed in 2019, it follows several teams of scientists around the world, as they search for a way to stop what has now happened. I now follow some of these scientists on Twitter. They’ve been the few credible voices I now want in my life: Dr Jacob Glanville (@CurlyJungleJake) and Sarah Ives (@sives54), as well as pathogen preparedness expert Dr Syra Madad (@syramadad) currently overseeing New York’s response to the disease. These three scientists have been my go-to people in these weeks. They upload data and papers I feel I should read.

Like many, I’ve been watching the Tories have the rug pulled from under them; “profit is less important than life” says Zoe Williams in today’s Guardian. The Conservatives, as a group ideology, are having such an obvious failure in terms of human principle. It’s taken this, a frigging global pandemic, to hurt them. Capitalists need workers, but how can they capitalise if all the workers are either ill, dying, or locked indoors? Covid-19 is a leveller. The Tory press have even turned rogue. Murdoch has slayed Boris in the Sunday Times and his shoddy approach to the virus early on. Piers Morgan has also turned leftie, savaging Hancock and co, on live breakfast time TV. A friend of Trump, he’s laid into Trump too. The NHS, limping and barely standing, is now a cherished pillar of our society. The first Thursday we all clapped I was brought to tears. Middle class, living in the East End, my neighborhood is edgy at the best of times. These days, I feel more bonded with my neighbours. To date, £28 million was raised by an ex army Captain Tom Moore, walking laps of his garden, great except that the NHS isn’t a charity.

However, these shifts in POV high up are what has kept me hopeful in all of this. Surely Boris has been somewhat humbled, what with being saved from the jaws of death by the NHS, being tended to so tenderly by two immigrants? In his speech to the nation after he left hospital, he mentioned the word ‘love’ twice. But no one believes he might have softened. As a co-founder of XRWritersRebel, I hope, post Covid-19, we will see a new green deal and a substantial change towards how mankind cares for the planet. But for now, lockdown is best managed one day at a time. We face many more weeks of it, and, for those of us who are high risk, maybe many months. Tomorrow will be a good day. I will turn fifty-five.

@moniqueroffey

19/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 63: Russell Williams

The Novels of Self-Isolation
By Russell Williams.

Xavier de Maistre, Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794)

 

What books should we be turning to in our present moment of crisis? As we deepen our breathing, steel ourselves for trips to the supermarket and prepare for lengthy periods of collective self-isolation, what novels might help us unlock, or at least try to think through our historical moment? Some titles have been getting a great deal of attention in recent days. Foremost amongst them is Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century Decameron — a series of stories acting as what scholar Martin Marafioti memorably describes as “narrative prophylaxis”, telling tales to help fend off the Black Death, which might provide some kind of inspiration. Closer to living memory, and apparently flying out of bookstores in France, at least before they were forced to close, is Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947), a novel that speaks of plague, but that I was always told was, actually, an allegory about the rise of the Nazis. Either way, it carries an inspirational message of human solidarity in tough times.

Both of those novels are in their own way, profound considerations of how humans experience and respond to disasters. Our current moment is also, though, acutely mundane: withdrawal, retreat and staying in — as we’ve all been discovering — can be deeply boring. Alongside the Boccaccio and the Camus, there is a body of work which dramatizes characters who shut themselves away, encouraging us to reflect on the odd emotional texture of social distancing, particularly in contrast to a normalness which champions sociability, visibility and putting yourself out there. In France, Huysmans’s Against Nature is a cult classic of decadence, its plot summarized by Andy Miller in The Happy Reader: “jaded aesthete secludes himself in provinces, unsuccessfully”. Thoreau’s iconic Walden, is well-meaning but lightly nauseating autobiography: man drops out of the rat race to sit in a hut by a pond. Not all of us, however, have the resources to lavish themselves in opulence in the company of a gilded and bejeweled tortoise, or eco-responsibly commune with nature. There is a less well-known body of work that deals with, articulates and shares a more quotidian experience of self-isolation, one that just might tell us something about what it means to hide ourselves away in 2020.

The most contemporary of these is Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), which stages experiments with human hibernation, centered around a protagonist who bases her retreat on the recuperative potential of sleep. This novel actually plays with two forms of withdrawal. The first is a prescription drug-inspired drift into the security of unemployment benefit, a blank confinement set in a pre-Netflix age where the only colour is provided by the faded tapes of the tired VHS movies she spools again and again, watching Harrison and Whoopi in a fuggy med-inspired haze. When her machine wheezes to a standstill, the disaster is experienced in a higher magnitude than the 9/11 which closes the novel.
Moshfegh’s character’s second hibernation is when things get serious, a hardcore three months of druggy sleep under lock and key once our narrator realises the Infermiterol she’s been taking has actually been causing her to sleepwalk, venture outside and party. She teams up with conceptual artist Ping Xi to turn herself into a piece of performance video art. A tablet every three days, the door locked from the outside.

What’s the outcome? Well, she succeeds in sustaining a complete, committed even impressive, form of social distancing. She sort of makes it, attaining if not an epiphany, but a moment of, apparently sincere clarity. After the end of her confinement, she sits in a park and watches, “a bee circle the heads of a flock of passing teenagers. There was majesty and grace in the swaying branches of the willows. There was kindness. Pain is not the touchstone for growth, I said to myself. My sleep had worked. I was soft and calm and felt things. This was good” (p. 288). Moshfegh’s novel excels more in its characterization and in its portrayal of her friendship with Reva, about working through her relationship with her parents (hey, her mum liked to sleep too), than about staying in. Despite herself, and in her own perverse way, Moshfegh has actually written a feel-good novel whose resolution feels a little too neat, too harmonious.

In many ways, Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator presents a textbook, Romantic notion of the kind of self-development that those hope temporary withdrawal can bring about. This is neatly summarized in psychiatrist Anthony Storr’s Solitude (1989), “removing oneself voluntarily from one’s habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life” (34-35). This may or may not be the case, but it too feels a little bit over-optimistic, a little simplistic, not least in an age of social media, where such removal is always a little tricky as we seek to undermine our tranquility by scrolling through Twitter feeds exposing ourselves to the mental stress that online panic brings with it. Some kind of contact is inevitable.

Perhaps a more realistic assessment of the positive possibilities of isolation comes from the seventeenth-century mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal who witheringly noted in his Pensées (1670), “when I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber”, and highlighting “the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely”.

In terms of the literature of self-isolation, some of the most interesting creative work gets to grips with Pascal’s conclusion. Much of it also comes from the French speaking world. Most eccentrically, the Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom starts with a protagonist who initially refuses to leave his bathroom, but Pascal’s restless itch sees him seeking out a range of different opportunities to stay in: he relocates to Venice where he rescues a copy of the Pensées, discarded by a tourist and spends too much time hanging around his hotel, before checking himself into hospital; he’s lucky enough not to have to share his double room.

What does he learn from his experiences in retreat from Storr’s “hurly-burly”? Not a great deal, if truth be known. Above all, he discovers that he really does like staying inside, and all of Toussaint’s characters, throughout all his novels, are probably best off when they do. If there is any pay-off in terms of solace or comfort in The Bathroom, it seems to be primarily aesthetic. Toussaint’s novel is presented in 170 exquisitely crafted and numbered minimalist paragraphs, each of them a perfect, independent exercice de style. Apparently — too — there is a Pythagorean logic at work in the triangular structure of the novel, split into three parts with the middle section described as its ‘hypotenuse’. Toussaint has, it seems, turned staying in into a productive literary constraint.

A more extreme example than the Toussaint, perhaps more explicitly Pascalian, is George Perec’s A Man Asleep (1967) (filmed by Perec and Bernard Queysanne in 1974). A young Parisian student, suffering from what sounds distinctly like a severe dose of depression, opts to ignore his friends, flunk his university exams and instead spend his days staring at the ceiling in his chambre de bonne, detailing minutely his shelving units, his ceiling, his breakfast crockery. He eventually makes the decision to wander the streets, maintaining a state of carefully-studied indifference to those he encounters in the dark Paris streets, arrogantly casting himself the “maître anonyme du monde” — the anonymous master of the world.

At the close of the novel, narrated in the accusatory second person, however, he realises it’s all been a bit of a waste of time. He hasn’t been able to sit quietly in his own chamber, but neither has his nocturnal flânerie done anything other than darken his mood:

You learned nothing, except that solitude teaches you nothing, that indifference teaches you nothing: it was a distraction, a fascinating yet flawed illusion. …[Y]our refusal is useless, your neutrality means nothing. Your inertia is as vain as your rage.

So, what’s the point?

Like Perec, the notorious contemporary provocateur Michel Houellebecq is probably not to be recommended if we are looking for an inspirational, uplifting message at the present time since he recognises, even celebrates, such futility. The majority of his protagonists all perversely insist on shutting themselves away, opting to wallow in precisely this form of self-despair. One character in Atomised (1998) spends weeks in his bedroom staring at the radiator. Another character in Submission (2015) checks himself into a monastery. The protagonist of Serotonin (2019), his most recent novel, chooses to disappear, checking out of his unhappy relationship by checking into a succession of mid-range hotels and stewing there in his misery, after finding a way to deactivate the smoke detector, since the only thing worse than self-isolation is a self-isolation where you aren’t allowed to smoke.

So far, then, so bleak. Perhaps the rare glimmer of hope in the field of the literature of self-isolation is a novel that Houellebecq once described to me, through a haze of early-afternoon rosé, as his “favourite book”; Eugène Ionesco’s little-read The Hermit (1972). I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that The Hermit acts as a model for Houellebecq, too, one that has influenced his themes, ambiguous pessimism, and even his literary style. It recounts the tale of a young, unremarkable office worker who, out of the blue, receives an inheritance windfall from a forgotten American uncle. Rather than any grand gestures, a trip around the world or (urgh) playing the stock markets, our narrator opts to quietly retire from life. He acquires a modest apartment in a sleepy arrondissement, and settles gently into a life of gentle routine, perusing the newspaper, losing himself in philosophical abstractions and contemplating the sacks of food and cases of wine his housekeeper has had the foresight to order in. Ionesco’s novel, the playwright’s only experiment with long form fiction, was written against the backdrop of the May 1968 protests, and violent insurrection becomes increasingly prominent as the novel proceeds. Our narrator, however, really isn’t interested in revolutionary politics, instead preferring to peer bemusedly out of his window, or dining — at the same time every day — in his local bistrot, boozing heavily as the structures, and the buildings, of contemporary society collapse around his hideout. He eventually opts to definitively barricade himself inside with his Burgundy and his Bordeaux.

Ionesco’s narrator, perhaps in a similar way to Moshfegh’s, casts doubts on the firmness of Pascal’s conclusions, as staying in his chamber doesn’t really pose too much of a problem, although admittedly the fine wine and the companionship of the bistrot waitress helps. Eventually, after weeks, months, perhaps even years — he’s not quite sure, the hermit toys with the idea of emerging from his hibernation and the novel closes on a note of oddly ambiguous optimism. One morning, our hero is “awakened by the chirping of birds”, glancing out of the window, he notes “an all-white tree in full flower” which has emerged through the piles of garbage in his courtyard. He reaches out and plucks “three immaculate flowers” (167). The tree soon vanishes, yet the flowers remain. It returns later that day, with the vision of a meadow and a hovering silver ladder, prompting novels final words, “I took that for a sign”. Of what, we never discover.

@rwilliamsparis

15/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 62: Adam Scovell

The Pleasure of Crime
By Adam Scovell.

In a time when every opportunity to escape the horror of our current situation is grabbed with relish, I found it surprising on recent reflection that my chief remedy for coping with the barrage of frustrations and worries over the Coronavirus and its handling were stories of murder. Not actual murder of course but the pleasures of crime fiction. A genre dismissed and treated with condescension by the unimaginative with such regularity that you could almost set your watch by it, crime fiction for me has acted as a sparkling tonic to the endless cycle of news, celebrity breakdowns and plethora of advice on what to read during lockdown, if the possibility of reading hasn’t been totally swamped by nervous distraction that is.

I find crime fiction to be consistent in reflecting a world view that other forms generally shy away from. Since the lockdown, I’ve found much solace in their darker vision of cities and societies as opposed to other, more optimistic fictional perspectives. Crime writers historically have always known the world to be slippery and aren’t interested in listing the flowers in the garden of their bought-and-paid-for semi-detached or any of the other strange writerly tropes currently cropping up during lockdown, especially in short form articles online. They instead trade in deception and death which is perhaps why I’m finding their work even more potent than usual at the moment.

With the general election last year, I had already fallen into the habit. I was preserving my own despair like a specimen in Victorian formaldehyde through reading Raymond Chandler’s still brutal Marlowe series of novels, The Long Goodbye especially. Filled with deceit, betrayal and violence, they mirrored the news cycle then with ease, at least in tone. Chandler’s world in some ways commented upon ours, even if the cars and suits were undoubtedly nicer in his.

I kept up the habit, moving onto an array of dingy, brilliant tales of criminality, from Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, along with Derek Raymond’s The Devil’s Home on Leave and Georges Simenon’s The Engagement. All provided something I struggle to name as anything other than optimism; a bizarre contradiction considering their regularly grim content but there we go. Why did I find optimism in a story of a man found in five Waitrose bags in a warehouse in Rotherhithe or the story of a Parisian whose licentiousness was used as an excuse to literally bully him to death?

Since being stuck indoors, others have come to comfort me with their visceral realities and violent worlds. Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place took my breath away with its rancid portrayal of Los Angeles, as did the play on spiv language in Derek Raymond’s The Crust on Their Uppers and the sheer cinematic dynamism of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman. Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead had me fooled with its raw detail right until its later chapters, often leaving me with the feeling of having dirt under my fingernails, while I’ve spent many an evening wandering through the shadowy side of Paris with Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma for company in Mayhem in the Marais and The Tell-Tale Body on the Plaine Monceau.

Contradictions are rife in taking such pleasure in these novels. I find optimism in their pessimism, I find beauty in their ugliness and I find distraction in their concentration of detail. In other words, I find everything I’m told I’ll discover in the chirpy fiction recommendations regularly suggested in articles as an antidote to our predicament; written with what seems to me to be a simplistic assumption that the only remedy for a sick world is to escape into work that writes out that sickness on some basic level. In reality, no one size fits all of our comforts so I don’t dismiss those recommendations nor play down their effectiveness for those who do gain something from lighter reading in such unusual times. Instead I simply question the broad-stroke approach taken by so many outlets to suggestions of possible relief from our day-to-day situation.

I still have much to read and enjoy, and I am lucky, both in having such books and having the privilege to not be in a position working on the front line. With my father working in the hospital laboratory where the first patients were taken back in February, my partner training to be a doctor in France, my flatmate working on the mental health frontline, and my mother surveying buildings to defog for Cornavirius, it’s a privilege that I feel acutely on a daily basis. Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez is still sitting in my to-read pile, as is Georges Simenon’s The Snow Was Dirty, Ruth Rendell’s Vanity Dies Hard, Ted Lewis’ Billy Rags and numerous others. But it is still a privilege to dive into the inky abyss of this wonderful genre, one refreshingly more grounded in a reality that is flawed; one just like our own.

@AdamScovell

14/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 61: Laura Marris

The Plague During Pestilence
Laura Marris interviewed by Ethan Powers.

It was in late January that Laura Marris began to see a reflection of her work on the television.

Marris, a literary translator and creative writing professor at the University at Buffalo, had been working for several months on a new translation of Albert Camus’s The Plague. Glancing intermittently between the words on the pages and those on the screen, it wasn’t until one word in particular began flashing across the bottom of TV screens throughout the world that the abnormality of the situation truly hit her.

“QUARANTINE,” the screens read, a word that appears countless times in Camus’s novel and carries with it a connotation historically attached to the very notion of plague as well as the physical and psychological ramifications it inflicts upon the infected populations.

“The quarantine as it happened in China sort of mirrors what happens in the book, where people are sort of unaware of what exactly is progressing,” Marris said.

Gradually over the following weeks, Marris entered a surreal state of consciousness, where the descriptions of the fictional pestilence she was translating to English from Camus’s native French manifested in the real world as the novel coronavirus pandemic brought the globe to a standstill.

Government responses languish as their reactive approaches are criticized. Case numbers rapidly increase while residents deal with the suddenly indefinite cessation of daily routines. Shortages of goods exacerbate anxieties and the city centre, once crowded with patrons gleefully partaking in the choices of consumerism, becomes a husk of commerce relegated to memory as stores, bars and restaurants empty.

Camus wrote his now eerily prophetic work between the Algerian city of Oran — the setting of the novel — during World War II and also in Nazi-occupied France. By 1947 when The Plague was published, the French citizenry yearned for writing that would allow them to process the trauma of the Occupation, if not to offer answers for its existence, then at least to chronicle the experiences of living beneath the pall of fascism.

In writing The Plague, a work widely read as an allegorical novel narrating the spread of totalitarianism, Camus tapped into an eager audience in France. He didn’t have to wait long to revel in the same kind of enthusiasm abroad. Stuart Gilbert, a renowned scholar and translator of James Joyce, worked quickly to get the book translated into English and completed the task in just a few months. Gilbert’s translation published in 1948 remains one of only two major English translations of the work, in addition to the Penguin Modern Classics edition translated by Robin Buss in 2001.

Sensing interest from the academic community, Knopf Doubleday approached Marris about the possibility of a new interpretation. They invited her to “audition” for the project by translating the first 20 pages of the novel. Having liked what they saw, Marris’s translation of The Plague is now set to be published next year. In it, she hopes to restore what she refers to as the “restraint” in Camus’s narrative as the author intended it to read. “[Gilbert] is very accurate. It’s not that he makes translation mistakes, but he tends to over-paraphrase,” she said. “He sort of brings his own experience of reading the book to his translation. Where Camus will be restrained, Gilbert will write the emotion of the scene, but that’s not in the text.”

The examples, she says, are relatively innocuous to the untrained eye, but the liberty in diction that Gilbert exercised can portray a poetic heroism that Camus went to lengths to avoid. Where Camus will write “And then they got back to work,” Gilbert’s translation will read, “They set their shoulders to the wheel”. For Marris, Camus’s understated and frequently blunt language was his way of portraying heroism as it existed in wartime France — not as some extraordinary incident of valor, but as the muted act of endurance and of resiliently carrying on, without accolade or fanfare, in the face of tribulation.

Yet don’t attribute the poetic lyricism of Camus’s prose to Gilbert. “It’s kind of like [Gilbert] is adding cymbal crashes, where Camus wants you to feel a cymbal crash, and he wants to evoke that by having something significant happen, but happen with restraint,” Marris said.

Marris is no stranger to authoritative French fiction, having previously produced an acclaimed translation of Blood Dark, Louis Guilloux’s influential World War I novel, as well as a comic book version of Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. But Camus has presented a handful of distinct challenges, particularly in his ability to oscillate between the esoteric moments of his characters and the long-winded existential ruminations of the narrator. “Camus has this ability to zoom in on an individual story, picking out something happening in the city or watching someone through the window with an odd routine, and then zoom out with a portrayal of loneliness and separation. The challenge is to be able to keep up with Camus when he’s writing the granular detail of those intimate moments and then, suddenly, he’s offering his philosophy on loneliness,” said Marris.

Exile and separation are recurrent themes throughout The Plague, not only in their depiction of physical absence, but the way in which that absence begins to permeate the heart and mind, endowing the inflicted with a kind of individualized suffering. For Camus, the themes were personal. He wrote The Plague separated from his wife while he battled tuberculosis, and the appetency he endured as a result is inherent in his novel’s text through Oran’s unattached couples — “the great longing of an unquiet heart is to possess constantly and consciously the loved one, or, failing that, to be able to plunge the loved one, when a time of absence intervenes, into a dreamless sleep timed to last unbroken until the day they meet again,” Camus writes. Camus meticulously describes the anguish of indefinite separation inexplicably imposed by an unseen force, and the winding syntax that gives way to some of the novel’s most rhythmically moving passages is deliberate, says Marris. The author, she notes, intended for readers to be active participants in that heartaching discomfort, not omniscient observers to it. “In those sentences when he’s talking about separated lovers, he actually will stretch them really long, so you kind of feel the pull of the characters waiting,” Marris said. “You almost feel as a reader that you can’t get a breath.”

In catching those breaths, Marris also wants readers to take stock of a character in The Plague whose presence in the novel has previously been inconspicuous and underappreciated: the city of Oran itself. She believes that the context of the novel’s setting is somewhat erased through translations that can homogenize the narrative for Western audiences.

A view of Oran by Laura Marris

In December, Marris traveled to Oran to see the novel’s topography up close, and while many of the street names have changed since Algeria gained independence in 1962, facets of the city referred to by Camus can still be found. “You can see where Camus imagined the guard posts,” Marris said. “People have read this novel for a long time as something that was perhaps more allegorical than realist, and certainly there are things in the novel that are true to the physical spaces of the city.”

The behavior of Oran’s citizenry, as Camus envisioned, upon the declaration that plague had indeed entered the city, has become a timeless portrait of humanity’s response to the arrival and progression of pestilence in all its forms — erratic at first, then defiantly unbelieving, followed by reluctantly somber acceptance. Just as enduring, however, was Camus’s ability to capture the seemingly perpetual knack of bureaucracy to stifle fact-finding. When Oran’s doctors gather at the beginning of the novel and are debating, as Marris puts it, whether “to call the plague what it is,” the scene stings with an eerie relevance for modern readers who have borne witness to a U.S. administration that first dismissed the COVID-19 pandemic as a hoax before disputing the idea that American society could be adversely affected by it. The U.S. has now recorded more than 80,000 deaths as a result of the virus, more than any other single nation.

The future inability of governments to accept the newfound realities created by plague — or plague-like ideas like that of nationalism — is something Camus accounts for in the conclusion of his novel when he provides a list of clandestine locations where a disease might lie dormant for decades before reemerging. In some translations, that list includes the word “paper”. “I think the actual French is a lot closer to ‘paperwork,’” says Marris. “I think that’s a pretty direct call-out to the ways in which bureaucracy can prevent the truth from coming out, or at least slow it down.”

Camus provides readers of The Plague with an admonitory ending, cautioning them against abstraction in the face of authoritarian swellings. He also eschews the notion of writing into the narrative some kind of deus ex machina where a cure-all serum is discovered, eradicating the plague and saving thousands of would-be fatalities. Instead, the triumph, if there is one to be had, comes through a combination of science, humanistic efforts, and the gradual fulfilment of the plague’s natural function. The result of the Sisyphean fight against the pestilence becomes secondary to the obstinacy of the fight itself.

Despite the futile endeavors of protagonist Dr. Bernard Rieux to halt the disease’s lethality, even when he must accept the role of passive onlooker to the plague’s ravaging of a young boy dying in agonizing pain, the contagion persists. Camus knew that such evils could never be fully exterminated through one act or individual.

He also knew that the intransigent uprising of autocracy follows the same trajectory as a deadly pathogen. It was in that prescient understanding that he sought to make The Plague a vaccine against such hatred, with the potential to avoid the day, as Camus wrote, “when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city”.

“In the novel, Camus’s idea of heroism is that people fight something, and they get knocked down, and they fight it again and get knocked down. They do their best, but it’s a constant process,” said Marris. “I think he hoped that people have enough resistance to these ideas within them, so that when these movements for nationalism and fascism raise their heads, we can recognize them and put a stop to them.” 

@lauramarris

@ethan_powers

12/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 60: Simon Okotie

Bindings
By Simon Okotie.

 

 

And he was, of course, now that his wrist bindings were starting to loosen, right on the brink, potentially, of gaining some crucial information, if not perspective, on his predicament in that, shortly, he would be able to use the hand and arm so loosened to delimit if not demarcate the space that he (as he continued, provisionally, to refer to himself) took himself to be contained within, and, in so doing, garner sufficient evidence, he hoped, to enable his escape from it, which is to say to enable him to remove what he took, for now, to be his body, from that enclosed three- (or more?) dimensional eight- (or twelve-) sided space, with the reason that he referred to this arm and hand in the singular being that the other arm, to which, for now, it continued, so far as he could make out, to be bound would, he thought, remain momentarily incapacitated, as it were, at least in relation to being used, with its freed counterpart, to delimit or demarcate that space given that his body, as he continued to refer to it (despite this form’s two-fold implication of possession and of gender, neither of which he was really, he thought, in a position to substantiate, at least not fully), would continue to press down upon it, which is to say that it, or they (that arm and, hence, that hand), would remain trapped, in a somewhat analogous, synecdochal (would it be?) relationship with the remainder of his body given that that remainder, whilst itself being trapped, would remain (in a different, temporal, sense) on top of that arm and hand until he found (or moved) himself in (or into) a position in which to release it, with this very question of what he thought would continue to be a trapped arm and hand raising a further question, which was this: what would he, so-called, prioritise once he was free to do so? What he meant to say by this, as he managed to loosen his bindings further through an action of rotating, crossing and alternating his clenched fists such that the angle subtended by his wrists (to each other) progressively moved from ninety degrees to zero degrees to ninety degrees again (or, more accurately, perhaps, from ninety degrees to zero degrees to minus ninety degrees, in that the clenched fists moved through a total of one-hundred-and-eighty degrees whilst also flipping back and forth, clockwise and then anti-clockwise, through the same angle), was both how would he deploy his freed right hand, this being the one that he thought would be the first to be released from its binding given that, so far as he could make out, he was on his left side facing towards the rear wall of that enclosed and obscured space, with his left arm beneath his body (the remainder thereof), once he had finally managed to free it, which is to say, how would he prioritise the tasks needed to free himself from that enclosed and obscured space, such as using that freed hand to elevate his body (the remainder thereof), to the extent that he was able, so as to enable his other hand and arm to be released from beneath him, or using it to start to remove the tape or gag, were either of these to be in place in his situation, across or within his mouth, or removing any hooding that might be entirely covering his head and face, or starting to loosen the bindings that he took to be in place around his ankles, or reaching out around him as a means of garnering evidence about the interior of that space — shape, dimensions, latches etc. — and how, moreover, would this relate, he wondered, to his priorities more broadly, once he had removed what he took to be his own body entirely from that enclosed and obscured space? Given that the radius of his wrist-bindings had, through the continued twisting, backwards and forwards, of his wrists whilst also alternating the lateral position of the respective clenched fists such that this action resembled an ‘X’ shape hinged, at its centre, through this loose (and loosening) binding such that the angle of the top and bottom quadrant (taking, for now, this shape to be symmetrical about both vertical and horizontal axes) progressively reduced to zero, an angle achieved, of course, when the wrists were in alignment with each other but at ninety degrees to the remainder of his body, before continuing into negative territory, as it were, en route, that is, to an angle, between the wrists, of minus ninety degrees, at the point where they once again aligned themselves with the body (the remainder thereof), now reached the point whereby he would, imminently, he thought, be able to release his right hand and wrist, at least, from the binding, he felt he must turn his mind urgently to these questions of prioritisation such that, as before, he might both use what would, at that stage, be a free hand wisely, in relation to the remainder of what he continued to refer to as his own body, which he assumed was bound, gagged and perhaps even blindfolded and/or hooded, within an enclosed space that was also, somehow, internally obscured (from us as well as from him), and use the removal, by himself, of that body from that enclosed and obscured three- (or more) dimensional eight- or twelve-sided space in a way that would not only honour the struggles that he (and, perhaps, even we) had endured to secure that freedom, but would, in addition, bring about the conditions whereby it could never, he hoped, recur.

@SimonOkotie

10/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 59: Jeff Wood

See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Breathe No Evil
By Jeff Wood.

 

 

One year ago this week I called my grandmother in Ohio to wish her a happy birthday. It was her 97th birthday and now one year more. We spoke to each other across an ocean. She had the news on mute on the TV in her room and at one point she stopped speaking, and gasped faintly, and then said, “Oh my. Jeff… Notre Dame is burning.”

^✹^

This did not begin.
It did not end.
It is not in order.
It’s in the order that it’s in.

The sequence, which determines the order of things.
In here, and out there. And
here — right here — this —
In the invisible ink that makes all things visible.

Even the invisible things, and the things which remain invisible.

^✹^

I will state right off the bat that I am not of sound mind. As others have said, it is very difficult to write. But what I‘m finding this means for me, in the spare and scattered moments, is that it’s even more difficult to edit — almost impossible. There is too much to say. Too much in this room. Each feature and every detail all pointing to the same exact temporal coordinate, a holographic cairn which, however we might try to describe it, reads only: HERE WE ARE. As if we are not only at the same time, but in the same place too, which in a way, we are. This place being the hyper-spatial geo-coordinate that can only be experienced from the perspective of another entity. A collective entity capable of being in more than one place at the same time, and more than one time at the same place. Virus geography, at viral scale. Like a stone.

A stone in the road. A stone buried in the ground. A stone as big as Devils Tower; as grotesque and fraudulent and un-alive and astounding as Mount Rushmore; a hallucinatory stone, as simultaneously remote and intimate as the Moon Landing. Michael Heizer working in the terrible, intolerable, and painfully rainbow brite colors of total 4D augmented reality. This stone in the road. The problem is that it’s bigger than the room, yet inside it. Too much to document, capture, interpret, impress. Too many connections, associations, links, reflections, coincidences, and contrivances. Too much to edit. Editing is what art, literature, architecture, science, mathematics, RNA and viruses are for. The unedited rest is for madmen, prophets, 5-year olds, Presidents, and impostors, the replicant in us hiding among us.

This infinite chain of unedited detail as narrative is what literary critic James Wood described as hysterical realism: the entire world as a literary ambition linked in an infinite chain of contrived-as-thought-world-relation. This literary hysterical realism is what I recently described here, in 3:AM Magazine — just days before the lockdown — as no longer occupying a category of literature, but having mutated and migrated into our shared experience of reality itself as a trauma-cinema: the replicant real. A shared experience of reality itself as a lived fiction. This THING which is lived as shareable. The shared experience itself as fiction. The fiction of itself as real. A replicant real wherein the suspicion arises as to whether I am experiencing the world, or experiencing the experience of it. It’s semantic until it isn’t — until the world is consumed by my experience of experiencing it, consuming me. And it.

I watch the numbers, every day, to confirm that something is in fact out there, and in a way, to be with it. To align with what’s happening on either side of the window, on either side of the screen. In here, the room is melting down, dripping — with me and my partner and Cooper, our 5-year old boy. The room is melting to scale. The virus is mapping us, from the inside out, as it remaps the world outside to its own geographic scale. A nano-drone’s-eye-view: a Google Map from the inside-out rather than from above. Not exactly seeing the world as a virus sees it. But seeing the world as a virus sees it through our eyes. The virus is one more shard in the fractal mirror of networked sight; a seeing which defies categories of subject, object, network, individual, dystopian, cooperative, national, tribal, migratory, fixed, emergency, equilibrium. The latticework is lichen-like, a compound entity, a hyper-subjectivity defying categories of human, virus, and AI–the triangulated Eye of Providence which comprises the fabric itself, the seeing screen, winnowing through the world, as the world.

The Royal View. Interstitial. Liquid. Cellular. Migratory. Aspatial. Here. This total room. This room inside the eye. Of us seeing together. As us. As virus. As network. The breathtaking view. Of numbers. Of breathtaking numbers. Of breathtaking.

This is a fiction of course; or the schematics of nonsense; or not. A way out — Here. A way of being here in this zone. A way of being the zone. What we know about the zone is that it is what we know about it. The zone is our perception of it.

The madness of words themselves attempting to capture the view. The view from the window and the view of the window itself. To capture my experience of the window; the madness of this thing that is not me inhabiting me as me; words inhabiting mind unresolved. The total transparency of it: that words are both the window and the view, simultaneously. The actual pain of words, singing like glass teeth. The attempt to edit. To bring things back to scale that can be shared across this distance of being in the same here.

On a featureless globe we all exist in the same place, about which communication is not necessary. Time on the other hand pours out of us. And I feel myself pouring into a well of infinite windows, a Tower of Babel turned inside out and upside down, a well of words, pouring me into the ground. A virus has nothing to communicate other than itself, and needs only a place to communicate it — to replicate. It is the word for itself. Its life depends on this word. It is the word for this place. Communicable. From the perspective of a virus “social distance” is not space at all, social distance is time — time experienced at virus scale. Us inhabiting ourselves through the optics of the virus; it having already inhabited us, at a spooky distance. To the virus, I am a clock. A time machine. From the perspective of the virus, all of us are the exact same person.

^✹^

Even the cemeteries are closed now. This is not as dramatic as it sounds. Not like people are dying who have never died before. Which Trump allegedly said, but then apparently didn’t say. Which is too bad really. It’s a good one. Too good, maybe. Replicant Trump, viral Trump. There are many Trumps; it is all of them and none of them. Trump is the Internet. Or vice versa. Trump is a virus, a pathogen. This is both metaphorical and literal; fictional and real, isn’t it? Melted together. From the perspective of Trump, or a virus, we are all the exact same person, an us, the network. A host. A talk show host. Thriving on drama. Surviving on it. All they want is to survive. He’s not the host. We are.

And the cemeteries are closed. It’s dramatic for us because we get out once a day, for about an hour, and the playgrounds are closed now too. So in the first days we take Cooper walking in the nearby cemetery, where we’d been taking him since he was an infant. He can’t exactly play there, but he can drag a stick in the dirt, take a different path through the tall trees, and approach the beehives teeming with life in the back corner of the graveyard. Firebugs swarm in great orgies at the base of trees. I point out birds and red squirrels with devil’s ears, and look into the sky. Sometimes there are foxes. He doesn’t know why the headstones are there, and he doesn’t ask, but he knows with certainty that when we die we are reborn, as a matter of course. I cannot dispute him. The Tibetans say it is so. It is not death so much as nonexistence which evades him, or which, perhaps ironically, does not exist for him at all. It is non-existence which does not exist for a 5-year old. He is the stone.

If he is not the word of God God never spoke. Wrote McCarthy in The Road. A few years ago, already deep into Trump country, which is a country everywhere — an infection — I scrawled down, in a fit of enduring despair, that The Road, after all, just turns out to be what it feels like to be alone with a small boy in this world now. Now I’m ashamed, or panicking with remorse, at the hubris; or the truth of it. An alternating current singeing the oxygen, where actual life might be occurring, thriving and greening.

Passing by the locked gates, the cemetery is empty of all but its inhabitants, which I can hear presently include a spotted woodpecker rapping on the hardwood of a chestnut; the year-round resident goshawk pair calling out to each other and passing freely from sector to sector; a newly-built hooded crow’s nest, high above the perimeter, with a view over the Berlin Wall. So with the playgrounds and the cemeteries both closed now, we take Cooper here, to the Berlin Wall Memorial, just a block from our house. What was once a literal death zone, and is now normally swarming with tourists, has now been repurposed as a vacated refuge of space for a kid, a patch of grass where we can kick a soccer ball and Cooper can run around like a maniac. It’s an uncanny sort of Disneyland. One of the most famous places on Earth, famous, in part, for its paranoia-inducing powers, is now a crappy patch of oxygen where we can spend an hour not to lose our minds. We’re squatters now, in the social distance of history rendered as safe, in the exact distance of a selfie-stick. At a safe distance from people.

The space though — the time signature of the Berlin Wall — somehow remains, like a vaporous contrail winding through the city. The geography of the memorial monument occupies us as overlapping temporal fields, the way a hermit crab might repurpose a skull. The cairn, or cosmic land-feature, travels with us. Time pours out of us, and pours over it, a stream pouring over the stone, remapping the temporal landscape. Remapping our experience around it. Repurposing itself and repurposing us as we reorient. In a million years I could never have imagined, as an American (or not), that I would be orienting myself to the Berlin Wall as a way of channeling my own son’s inexhaustible energy during a global pandemic here. Maybe I could have imagined it, and couldn’t have known it was me. 

But the virus is melting down everything. Melting us down to viral geography. Even memories of the future, at viral scale. It’s melting down the microcosm of my own household completely. Social distance on the outside is accompanied by a horrendous, sustained pornographic proximity on the inside. Humanity is about an equilibrium of social distances, an equilibrium of scales. Now, on the outside, space itself has suddenly warped to expansion, while on the inside, many of us — those of us in family units — are packed in like animals in a wet market, the same conditions of course that sprung the virus. If the simile seems forced, or obvious, or otherwise unpalatable, it’s because it’s not a simile, it’s a replication of scale at either end of the viral continuum — walls dripping with a breakdown in equilibrium, the conditions themselves toxic in the breakdown, the dripping of the plumbing exposed, the walls melted away. Ironic — this quarantine behind melted walls. The neoliberal experience provides its brood with a viscous amniotic mucous (after Morton), a lubricant-serum, an accessory to its fructose syrup, to facilitate prophylactic intimacy, a simultaneously intimate distance protecting us from an otherwise toxic experience. The experience in turn generating algorithmic, mimetic dependency upon itself. The auto-Entertainment (after DFW). And on the inside now we are left with only the mucous, glistening in the interrogation light — and I can’t fucking get it off of me. On the outside, for the moment, the toxic Martian atmosphere of its absence.

^✹^

On the third Sunday of the lockdown, the legendary composer Krzysztof Penderecki passes away. At the precise moment when every moment of it could be scored by him, he passes through it. Across the street, construction work continues as if nothing is out of the ordinary, as if nothing is happening at all. Cooper stands at the window and watches workers moving freely about the scaffolding, renovating the typical drab olive gray, still pock-marked with WWII bullet holes. He watches them crane timbers up to the rooftop for its expansion into a new penthouse. It’s as if the new world is happening in reverse, backwards toward us. Some kind of strange moving still-life in the vertical format of the window, as though it can’t possibly be outside at all, but is a lenticular dimension of the windows themselves. On sunny mornings, existing tenants emerge from their windows and take advantage of the impromptu balcony, sitting on the hard planks of the scaffolding in their pajamas with coffee steaming in the sun. Any moment of it, every looping moment of the nothing happening out there, the procession of windows that we occupy, the frame units of time are elongated into Penderecki’s silent scream. Hitchcock at a geological time scale. Steam rising frozen, from the coffee in hand. The musicality of the single moment stretched across the duration of itself. The virus seeing itself in the musicality of replicant time. Our windows are the transparent wings of an insect, beating so fast that outside all is still.

In the supermarket there’s an older guy, calling to mind a certain type of character who might’ve been damaged by history around here. Two blocks from the Wall; very possibly he’s been on these blocks his entire life. Less and less of them on these blocks, just like blocks in Brooklyn, just like blocks increasingly everywhere. He looks at me in the supermarket aisle. He looks at me across time, and scoffs and shakes his head. He looks at me like I’m absolutely insane for wearing a mask. He might be right. We’re both out of our minds. Looking across time. Looking across scale. But I believe in what’s happening and the infrastructural logic of flattening the curve. It’s not rocket science. It’s science. Nonetheless we’re both still crazy for it. And there’s no question that there’s a performative element to my homemade mask, aligning me with what’s happening, unifying what we read and hear with what we do, creating solidarity between my own behavior and real events across time zones, softening the jet-lag incurred in the few blocks between the supermarket and home. Plus it just helps me remember to keep my hands away from my face until I get home to wash them.

And I wonder instead, why in fact do I strangely feel right at home wearing a mask in the supermarket? Why have big chain supermarkets such as this one always felt unquestionably apocalyptic to me for as long as I can remember? Because they seem impossible; and yet they are. The world-destroying feature of our world as an infinite, inexhaustible resource. The things that come from nowhere, the things that just are. This then is nowhere, in the world that has been destroyed, but hasn’t been. Now all the toilet paper is gone — even in Week 5 — and still no one can quite figure out why. I buy Cooper a Hot Wheels car, because he fucking deserves it even though no one really deserves a Hot Wheels car. But I can buy myself this moment of magic, of absolute off-worldiness. I can buy myself the holographic gesture, and the sentimentality. I can buy myself time, and so I do. It’s strange, pulling down the little car in its package from the rack, on the other side of my mask, while the toilet paper aisle is empty. I listen to myself breathing. In fact there are more neon and black-light fructose products than you could ever need — fully stocked, and quivering with aliveness–enough replicant foods to last a hundred years. It never ceases to astonish me that a Hot Wheels car from Malaysia costs the same as a dozen eggs or a store-bought bottle of water, even though that’s the mirage I’ve been living inside for my entire life. At this point I have no idea what they should cost; which should be more, and which should be less. Voodoo math. Perhaps at the trading post of the New Normal all things are equal, depending on what you have. It makes him happy, and we race them down the hall, crashing them between the kitchen and the living room, where we will spend weeks on end.

^✹^

The New Normal must be the most coarse, crass, and grotesque meme to arise on the Trump-Corona continuum. Coronation. The Coronation of the New Normal. There. I’ve just generated a meme. This is what the algorithm does. Fuck off with that. Fuck off with the algorithm that you were already in some normal.

But be prepared. It will come for us. They will say it never happened. They will say it was fake. They will say it was all a lie. They will say it was a conspiracy. Or that there is nothing there at all. The only conspiracy is the one they’re trying to keep up with. They will say that no matter what you did there was nothing you could have done. You can’t outrun the Algorithmic Taxidermist. The Algorithmic Taxidermist doesn’t run. He’s already here, walking through walls. Skinning us and slickening this with goo.

It’s changing him, the extreme social distance of social isolation, rearranging his molecules, melting him down to viral scale, reducing him to some grotesque and pulsating mucous membrane. A radiant mutation, regenerating by the power of its own decay, in the absence of an outside atmosphere. Entropy as compressed steam engine. A freight train of entropy, running off the rails and right into the eye of the storm. Positioning himself there, in a physiological act of self-preservation, dragging the cyclone about himself. Captain Cooper stands definitely at the center of this ghost ship adrift, like a monstrous pirate squid, chopping off his own arms just to watch them squirm and writhe about the house like the amputated hands of some mad clock. So much time pours out of him that he is powering suns. He is time-generating. He is the opposite of a black hole. He stands at its precipice and hurls time and light into it like insults. 5-year old boys are atom smashers. He crushes up atoms for breakfast like Pez. 5-year old boys are the Event Horizon between fiction and the consensual real.

Crossbreed a raccoon with a bald-faced hornet. Starve it. Soak it in angel dust. And then lock it in the garage full of power tools and live baby ducks. This comes close to what it’s like isolating a healthy 5-year old boy to a small urban apartment with no access to other children, 24 hours a day, for weeks on end. Blood Meridian in a petting zoo, over Easter. 

He’s a bright boy. By random collision he speaks three languages fluently. He thrives in preschool. He is by turns kind and wild, sweet, empathetic and maddeningly stubborn, surprisingly reasonable, and frighteningly narcissistic — which is to say, he’s five. He’s also extremely physical. And now, without the superstructure of other humans, the sounding board of other human creatures who aren’t his parents, each of these qualities is being amplified and projected as an inflated audio-visual rupture, a sonic weapon capable of penetrating walls that might otherwise contain and describe him. He is a close-range sonic boom, piloted by some cocksure maverick asshole, and our ears are fucking bleeding. It’s horrible. It’s awful to witness, awful to manage and awful to be responsible for. And by responsible, I do mean that it is my fault. It is us, at parenting scale and at viral scale, simultaneously — we are each other. This is my responsibility, even if it isn’t my fault; even if it’s all of our fault and no one’s in particular. We share this world with other entities. One of them is Cooper, and another one is a virus, among billions. We share this world with other entities who are also capable of surveying it, mapping it, colonizing it, redistributing it, packaging it, possessing it.

And it’s doing all of these things to him. Mapping him remotely, at a spooky distance. Scanning him as geography to raze. Drawing up algorithmic street names from the aboriginal dead. Speculating. Doing everything it can to lure him back outside. Like a siren. Deafening at the window. He’s falling apart, collapsing like a landslide. Careening through waveforms like a symphonic orchestra run backwards through a phase shifter. He is the temperature of the water. He is the water. His mood swings are monstrous radiations; tempers — zero to infinity in 1 second flat. He’s hitting me, with his fists, all day, everyday. Sometimes as an expression of anger, but often, I believe, for the sustained physical intensity, for the pure resistance of it: I am here and you will prove that I am, like Newton’s cradle. I am here only if you are here. Trees don’t fall in the forest. The forest falls. He swings grotesquely between infant and teenager, animal, a hydra of memes, like The Thing. And consequently, in a few short weeks, I have no idea what I am.

^✹^

The Turin Horse
(or, scalding hot potato)

(approx, daily, swap out for sporadic moment/hour personal time)

Dawn — look at light; keep eyes closed; read book to Cooper.
Play/Breakfast — read aloud with breakfast; stealth-check phones; avoid videos.
Podcast/Play Lego — mommy does yoga; daddy works on computer/plays.
School–letters, #’s, calendar, geography, space, things, puzzles, drawing.
Daily Preschool Gymnastics Video.
Lunch–read aloud with lunch.
Get Dressed To Go Outside, if possible.
Go Outside, if possible.
Snack–critical
Movie if Movie Day / Video-calls with Family, etc / Wrestle on Bed
Dinner
Books
Bedtime
Kitchen/Bar–global/local news, social media, strategy meeting, moderation.
Sleep

^✹^

To alleviate it, he wants to watch movies. Of course he does. He loves video as much as we all do. Theoretically, it would be the time we might have to ourselves, as human parents. But under the circumstances he can’t handle the withdrawal, not after 1 minute, not after 10 minutes, not after 1 hour, not after 3 hours. There’s not enough resistance out here to counterbalance the mainline. There’s no view in Berlin to begin with, and now there’s no view at all. So video — withdrawal for Cooper-unplugging — is a real crack tremor now, a real exorcism, a physiology turned inside out and unleashed into the room, rolling in salt. He mimics everything we say, and says things we never do. “I hate you. I hate mommy. She is not behaving good. At all.” Normally normal behavior for a 5-year old. In an offshore panopticon. Our entire apartment has been transformed into a primeval zoetrope of his entire psychology. Our single common room looks like the CIA had a conversation with it. Our couch is unusable, for the duration. He’s building caves within caves, making space for himself — and his kind — that did not previously exist. The apartment is simultaneously bigger and smaller. He’s wielding the f-word like the magic saber that it is. (No I idea at all where he could’ve heard it.) He’s an f-word Jedi now. Jingle Fuck! Jingle Fuck! Jingle Fuck the Fuck!

He retreats into the recesses of his couch cave and is listening to some podcast, from somewhere else on earth. He is naked from the waist down and wearing pajama bottoms on his head like a Tuareg turban. I cannot further describe here what he is doing because I must embrace the good faith that he has a future that outlives this. He is crouched like the Judge in his outhouse, embracing the horror. He turns to Claudia and states that, “Hitting is a human condition. I heard it on the podcast.” He bites me like a monkey when I beckon him with a hand, warning of the tempest. We’re reenacting The Lighthouse, as father and 5-year old boy. He’s spitting like a viper. And then hits me in the face. It tremors inward, into deep space, across the universe, wherever it needs to go so that it doesn’t come back into the room. The tree doesn’t fall. The forest falls. The tree is silent, tremoring up the trunk. Crowning. The sky is on fire. The fire in the tree is burning down heaven. The universe is ablaze. The cosmos is silent. The numbers are streaming. Cooper is in the room. The numbers are the room. It is all around us. It sees us. It is us seeing. We are the windows.

My job is to keep Cooper on one side of the window. My job is to see at scale. All of them. He refuses to wash his hair. I mean refuses, the way a lynx refuses to be caged. Refuses even to be tranquilized. He’s full of darts and smirking like a porcupine. So I sit him in front of a video and cut his hair. He still loves Winnie the Pooh. He watches them trespass dark and unknown regions of the Hundred Acre Wood. His hair falls in piles on the floor around him. Sometimes the difference between breathtaking, symphonic equilibrium and volcanic catastrophe is 20 minutes too hungry, a snack too late. But you didn’t see it coming, couldn’t see it, it was invisible, at another scale. Deafening rupture. Breathtaking is a function of the architecture of the aquarium. All it’s trying to do is survive; to be itself. He climbs up onto my lap at my small desk in the corner of the room where I’m fidgeting at something, some part of the network, some iteration of language. He curls into my body with a book, and says, “Daddy, read this to me.” He is warm and his hair smells good. I truly don’t know whether he is demanding language. Or whether it is demanding him to learn it. This is scale. This is virus scale. Tell me where language is.

^✹^  

The irony of global pandemic isolation is the alleged forced staycation of Netflix, books, baking, endless memes, whimsical time-killing hobbies, arts & crafts. And the irony of that — with a healthy, feral five-year old — is that there is no such staycation.

Lego architect, control-rod engineer, child psychologist, pro wrestler, madness channeler, expert deep-breather, memory-wiper, shaman. These are my full-time occupations now. The ironies cancel each other out and collapse into a pile of powdered mirror.

Sifting through the pulverized reflections, like fiberglass insulation, the compound associations, the chain of infinite references leading to the absurd emptiness of total irony — the unity of this world as a single black hole. Or is it a disco ball? The symbol which is symbolic of itself; the palm-sized, abstract Lego-form unit; the Suprematist power token that holds opaque, luminescent meaning for me now. The encryption as the message itself. I am reading the firewall like tea leaves, incinerating.

My job description now, without a shred of irony, is Zone Guide.

Which is to say that my face is melting off. I’m becoming the person, the parent, that I never ever wanted to be, breaking down daily, several times a day. Domestic reactor core failure. And steeling myself against it — against the failure of myself. I insulate myself properly, ready to receive transmissions through the wall sockets, from David Lynch, my fellow Eagle Scout spirit guide, for composure. I take a long deep drag off his cigarette, at Zoom-distance, tattooing my lungs in the black trees. I look for Sam, out there somewhere, in the dignity of before the Internet. I stare into the eyes of Herzog, his chicken-eyes of death, and purify myself for the immolating shower of numbers. Becoming human. The inhuman-human-alien-thing that we are, that I am now. I am the room, the perimeters of the building, the block, the city, the non-perimeter of the internet, the coordinates and radii of the JHU Coronavirus Map blooming with red ink, overlapping as war game detonations and molds. I’m the perimeter of my son, whorling and orbiting inside the tidal wave of his gravitational churning. I am his gut bacteria and his droid-angel. The ones he doesn’t know he has. I am a ghost now. This house is haunted. Cooper is alone here, holding a séance with other entities, at other scales. Bats circling him, where his parents once were. Bats and music — the music of things which exist but do not. Everything is singing this disembodied housing unit. A note, stretched into drone, in the stretching of time and space. The particle is the wave. Cooper is the house. This house of music and bats. Cooper and the virus. An echolocation.

The bats come at night. Black as ink, but hot pink, shimmering translucent, and electric blue too. When we did become network? When did we become we? When did the network, finally, become itself? Was it now? The body, the body of the world, suspended and levitating between two streaming dreams of code. The body, the body of the world, the confluence of those streams. What does it want? What, in fact, does it do? The bats come at night, and I watch them, tumbling among them in the flight simulator. Holding out my hands, rearranging them, remembering them. Maybe I can do something with them. Maybe they can do something with me. Maybe they will help me. Maybe I can help them be what they are. Maybe I can host them. Maybe I can remember them. These bats are angels; they have traveled a very long way. They are time travelers. From picture to picture.

In the morning I dream of Cooper, in the black and silver twilight. He’s climbing from the bed to the window. I feel him standing on my body in the dark, and pulling the curtain aside. I look up at him and see him rising from my body, leaning toward the window, reaching for the handle. I hold him up so that he can open it himself, and then he claws at the windowsill, desperately wanting to get out. I hold him out into it, and hold him back, simultaneously, from the midair beyond the 4th story window. It takes everything I’ve got to do both of these things at once. I feel all the strength in his small body. Everything he’s got. I’m afraid to have written these words.

^✹^
       
Bob Dylan’s new song appears like flowers. It’s extraordinary. At 17 minutes long, it’s epic, and sublime. I put on headphones and listen to it in the middle of the day. Murder Most Foul. I watch Cooper playing with Legos across the room, in the silence of the room out there, the silent music outside my headphones. With his new haircut he’s an older boy already, fast. The song is so beautiful that tears roll down my cheeks, pouring out of me as I watch him out there in the cinematic silence. He is moving so gently, nimbly fitting pieces together, without torment, in the silence that surrounds him, in the sonic illusion of the silence I perceive. For there is none. Things are made out of sound, all things, even silence, even tenderness. If he were to look over at me and see me crying he would have no idea why. I have no idea what he would see.

When we ask no quarter, no quarter do we give.
We’re right down the street from the streets where you live.

^✹^

Then the City of Berlin offers extraordinary financial support to freelance workers and artists, without delay; in some ways buying our belief, our confidence, our solidarity in what is happening, and the government’s handling of it. In this sense I mean “buying” in the most authentic sense of the exchange. Capital as voodoo solidarity. Buying time with real money. Stay at home. And it works, in good faith, in that most German way, demonstrating reasoned consideration, calculation, and agility across its entire handling of the pandemic: it works. For all the ambient social distance endemic to the European north, a crucial social intensity is demonstrated in the RNA. They are strange bedfellows in the spooky distance of contemporary capitalist networked experience. For 48-hours we plunge into an internet nightmare, a panicked fever of not wanting to miss the window of opportunity, or screw up the online application for freelancers needing support. And we need it. Theatres — social space exemplified, and the bread and butter of our household income — have been closed for the foreseeable future, possibly the rest of the year. So we get our shit together, and we get in line, online. It pays off; I wind up with a digital ticket in the 1700s. Our time arrives. We gingerly navigate the German bureaucratic terminology, normally arcane and labyrinthine, this time by the grace of God made simple. Then, at the very moment of our application submission the system crashes. Allegedly due to the bottleneck, it vanishes in the panic like so much toilet paper. Rumors of hacking (of course there are). In either case, we’re left with the spinning wheel at the center of a blank screen. No idea whether our application went through. No idea whether we’ll have another chance. Just a spinning wheel. I can’t tell whether I’m in a DDR breadline or a Ryanair hellscape. And the answer is yes. We get back in line. In the line to this future. Number 147,000 and something now. We stay glued to the computer, watching the numbers again, watching them count down this time, instead of up. Glued to the network, indistinguishable from it, as with everything else now: news, family, friends, time, travel, weather, work, world. Replicant with it. And then it works. In two days flat, the money hits our bank accounts. The Berlin coronavirus financial assistance. In two days flat it’s in my account. Just like that. It’s more money than we’ve had in our accounts at the same time in the five years since Cooper was born. It’s astonishing. It’ll get us by. It will buy us time.

All of this is a clock. The distance between breaths, and the lengths of breaths themselves.

I listen to my son breathing.
I listen to my son’s breathing.

I listen to my son breathing.
I listen to my son’s breathing.

He’s not breathing, he’s pulsating. Wandering among the ruins where irony used to be useful. A collapsible selfie-stick, as they all are. All the words in the world, at a safe distance from the cruelty of complementary opposites, all of them. Now strewn about the wreckage, flickering as discarded codons, twitching the time. All the grains of sand. Quaking like aspen leaves. The air is murmuring, a mobile mirror of plovers, banking and whorling, disappearing into it and reappearing from behind themselves. Maybe we are like that too. Maybe that is how we seem, from a vantage point that we can’t fathom. And ones that we can now. A wondrous murmuration between sincerity and sincere fraudulence. Heat lightning.

Maybe it is learning. Systems don’t learn. But people do. And we are made of people. Nurses and doctors and virologists and piano makers and programmers and waste managers and poets. Now is not the time for prophets. Prophets have always been needed. There has never not been a time when prophets were not needed. But against all, temptation, that time is not now. We know exactly what that gets us. We know exactly who.

We need truth-tellers, who do not tell the truth, but try. It matters what we say, if only because we continue to say that it does. And say it to other people. Anyway, the lie doesn’t lie. Not for long. Prophets are sincere in their own replication. Sincere replicants. Suicide is when you murder your host.

^✹^

What becomes of a boy? In the precise moment that the world comes into being for him — the world as a socialization. This will be in his bones, I guess, as some kind of memory in the wood grain, some kind of residue — in the way maybe that we are all contaminated: in precisely the way that I react to his reacting. The brokenness of myself. The chain which is neither of us, and all of us. The damaged world. There is no doubt that I am failing him, doing the best I can. It’s not good enough. It fails us, and I fail him. He is doing the best that he can. It’s beyond good enough. How am I him, and how is he me? How are we all each other. This is how. But I will not give him a world that is wrong. I will give him a world that is broken, unjust, jailbreaklable, stupid, bendable, cruel, ridiculous, absurd, astonishing, kind, infinite, alien, here, somewhere else, this one, and also something else… But I will not give him a world that is wrong. That is something that I decide.

^✹^

In the second week of lockdown The New York Times Magazine publishes an excellent report by Mark O’Connell on being an apocalyptic tourist to Chernobyl. He imagines his experience less as an encounter with history than as “a vast diorama of an imagined future, a world in which humans had ceased entirely to exist.” He quotes passages from Chernobyl Prayer by the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich: “Something from the future is peeking out and it’s just too big for our minds.” And Paul Virilio: “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.”

And I remember Mark Fisher’s now-famous aphorism that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. I wonder instead if it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the world.

^✹^

And then one day it passes. Just like that. Like two discs passing across the faces of each other, to form a sphere. The meridian of a hot flash. We’re laughing like hyenas, laughing until we cry. He’s flying around the room like a deranged balloon. We’re blowing them up and releasing them, all different colors, and they’re flying around the room, spiraling out of control, crawling across the ceiling and smashing into lamps. I fill one up, stretching it as full as it will go, and then blast him in the face. He’s delirious, like a puppy with his head out the car window, and the unconstrained raspberry fart sound of it releasing all over him. He’s so happy he’s out of his mind. All the air I had inside me, releasing us both. Again is all he can say. Again! Again! Again! Again! All he had to do was remind me.

In the Hundred Acre Wood Christopher Robin agonizes over his decision to tell Winnie the Pooh that there will come a time, inevitably, perhaps soon, that they will no longer be able to do nothing together anymore. It’s devastating. Somewhere between sentimentality and bitterness is the preservation of the world that cannot be preserved.

Owl is flying.

^✹^

On a Sunday, the church bells are ringing from the empty churches. The moon is visible in broad daylight, a great strange turnip, fainting in the blue. Spring is exploding.

I’m suddenly wide awake in the middle of the night. There’s a message on my phone from one of my closest childhood friends. It arrived silently from across the ocean. “Have you seen the super moon? Here it was like daytime after dark.” I get up and go to the kitchen and it is there, hanging all about me, glistening among the pots and pans. I stand there in the kitchen and watch it through the window.

@coopers_hawk

09/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 58: Kate Armstrong

I Run
By Kate Armstrong.

 

In these days I do not go to bed. I do not expect to rest. Instead when night comes I roll myself up in a blanket on the sofa, still in day-clothes, and I count the ambulance sirens in and out of the hospital which has always been at the end of the road and which now feels particularly close. Like so much in this new world my sleep is a makeshift activity. I merely doss down for a while, quiet but still alert, ready to move into action if there’s a need.

I rest instead during the days. There are hours when I work; and then hours when I scroll through Twitter like everybody else, feeling the anger and boredom and frustration at all these idiots burst and fizz in my brain until that too is too much. But, that done, I examine the paintwork on the ceiling, waiting for the patch of sunlight that crosses my flat to reach me, cross my body, continue to the far wall. I am checking through that time on the progress of my mind, tracing its wanderings, preparing for where it could go. I wrote to my psychiatrist when the lockdown first began. I can feel my brain falling apart, I said. I need you to tell me if it goes too far. She wrote back, reassuring: you will get through this. I know you will.

To get through this, when I am not resting, I run. Day by day I widen my circles like a fox marking its territory out. I run east past repurposed wharfs to where the Thames estuary begins to open towards the sea. I run through the financial quarters, check off the City churches which hunch and squat below office towers whose glassy scales reflect this Spring’s blue sky. I run north to Regent’s Park where I see two giraffes, taller than their fences, looking lost but unperturbed. In St James’s Park I count herons; I observe how each day the moorhens seem calmer on the lake, how the pelicans come closer to be fed. I hear the geese fly overhead, and I wonder whether they always sound like that or whether the slow whirr of their wings like a heart about to stop is a new sound which the virus has brought. In Hyde Park I watch, merely two metres away, as a man wrapped in a dirty sleeping bag feeds bread to a quartet of parakeets.

Everywhere I go London is still here, here but empty, as though this is moonlight I am running through and not the sun of midday.

Home again. Twitter again. The checking of our privilege goes round in circles: I read a woman who’s had the virus but who is chipper and thanks the NHS. I read a man say his mental health is deteriorating but at least he’s not physically alone. My brain is also deteriorating, and I am alone, but I count my job and a south-facing balcony so there are plenty worse off than me. It’s genuine this checking and comparison and gratitude. I often think that gratitude for what we have got is the only thing that will get us through.

For to be alone through these times is, I tell myself, a blessing, a meditation, a form of sensory retreat. I am, I tell myself, in a liminal time, between night and day, then and the future, illness and health, the urban and the wild. I wonder how busyness will return to the streets. I wonder when and how thickly the crowds will reform. I think of this as I measure the city under my running feet, and when at night I turn to sleep, still I am alert for what may yet be to come.

@katejarmstrong

08/05/20: 3:AM in Lockdown 57: Gerard Feehily

Parisians Are So French
By Gerard Feehily.

 

In the first days of the confinement of Paris, there was paper everywhere. Torn documents, flyers, scraps of catalogues and magazines scuttled along the footpaths in the mid March winds.

And then there were crows. Oily black, with that bouncing confident lope to them. I saw them on rooftops, they were perched on bins. They hopped onto car bonnets, stood at the doors of cafés. Delighted with themselves, black triumph. 

They’re usually rare in Paris, but overnight they had invested the city, running the pigeons and sparrows off their patches. They’d become kings of the avian world, bounding all heavy winged along the footpaths with scraps of paper in their beaks.

In the hours leading to the lockdown some six hundred thousand Parisians abandoned the capital. That’s about a quarter of the population. They left for parental farmhouses, for coastal villas, to mountain refuges, to sit out the plague. 

Back in Paris it felt as if the government had collapsed, zero traffic, army patrols, homeless men at the junctions, and then all this paper rolling along in the wind, in quivering heaps. 

I felt it was as though a dictator had fled, and in his hurry had emptied the incriminating documents half shredded into the streets.

The motorways out of the city were clogged right up to that cut off hour of midday, Tuesday March 17th, a Saint Patrick’s day of particularly ill omen, and then everything went quiet. In unmarked squad cars the police rolled up and down the river and the main boulevards. No trains ran. No planes lifted off from Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports. It seemed like the crows, scuffling along the peaked lead roofs, were watching over this, plague wardens. 

Paris had fallen. 

And as for us left behind, who could no longer move beyond a radius of one kilometre around our homes, there was the hunkering down to be done, the purchase of masks, the printing out of documents authorising us to leave our homes for food, called AFFIDAVITS OF MOVEMENT BY SPECIAL DISPENSATION. In the evening, at eight, we applauded from our windows the doctors and nurses of the French health system, with those few neighbours that had stayed behind in our quarter. Then on TV, we took in the information, of the death tolls galloping in Italy and Spain. 

And it felt like it was all getting very close.  And that perhaps we were just applauding ourselves. 

Panic is like an external force. If you catch it in someone’s eye, if you hear it, then it gets you too. It comes creeping upwards, water in the cabin of a sinking ship. A man coughs in the supermarket aisle, a woman sneezes, someone is standing far too close to you in the queue, an ambulance races past. The triggers are everywhere. And the question becomes, do I run?

Panic comes in waves. It isn’t quite the same thing as fear, you can walk fear off. And if anything it was good to walk, even if there was a queasiness in the air, the sense that things could unravel faster than can be grasped. I would circle the streets of the Marais, from the district of Saint Paul near the river and north to the quarter of Temple. Or rather I’d describe rectangles. The Marais is a grid, a somewhat rickety one, of medieval era lanes and alleys, lined now with dishevelled, sometimes unsteady looking 18th century townhouses, five stories high. 

Many of the streets are no more than seven or eight paces wide, some not much more than the breadth of a van. I walked through these canyons of sandstone, day in, day out, sticking to the middle of the road, the road car free. It became almost a matter of principle for me to avoid walking into a police check. My papers were in order. I had my affidavit completed, signed and dated, but a police check is called a contrôle in French. But I didn’t want to be controlled. At the first glimpse of a uniform, I would slip into the nearest side lane, heart thumping.

This was in the days after the Vernal equinox. Surely spring was coming. Easter was imminent. And the sun did come out. No cars, no delivery vans, no lorries, just the occasional grunting, sweating jogger to disturb us in the pale silver Parisian light. Into the silence, the bells of the city’s churches rang. 

When there are no more distractions, passersby, cars, then buildings as if by magic become vivid, as fresh as their architects intended. The creaky villas of the Marais seemed extraordinarily present, like they were breathing. There was an Adam Ant song that went : Young Parisians are so French. And that’s how the buildings of Paris came out, in truisms. Calmly proportioned off-grey townhouses, black wrought iron balconies, slatted white shutters, that in summer you draw in, leaving the windows open, giving shade, the breeze blowing through the slats. So French.

And in the stillness of the afternoon there appeared these spectral figures, men from Eastern Europe, Asia, eating out of tin cans, squatting by the semi ruin of Notre Dame, that itself towered over the quiet green river. One day I met a man, lugging a dustbin along the road, who said, If Jesus is the son of God, who are you the son of? A mocking, probing question quite worthy of Jesus himself, I thought. In front of the town hall stood another in a motorcycle helmet, holding a saucepan. He was talking with the greatest dignity about electromagnetic waves. A Russian with a face like the last Tsar sat at the entrance of a tent by the post office. Would you kindly lend some money, he said. These were the souls you meet in the underworld.

One morning I was on the rue de Rivoli. No cars. On the corner of BHV, the department store, traffic lights slipped uselessly from amber to red, then green. You could hear their mechanisms click. From where I stood, looking east, a relay of forlorn lights clicked red to green, while their counterparts in the streets perpendicular to them clicked politely the other way. 

Rivoli is a long and broad avenue, it’s the Oxford Street of Paris. And like Oxford Street, it’s rather elegant, rather grand, but its commercial vocation, of mainly middle range, ready to wear clothes stores, distracts from this.

But not now. It had become itself, its 19th century gravitas restored. I walked down the middle of it, enjoying temporary ownership.

To the east stood the July Column, fifty metres tall. And perched on the top, a statue, the Spirit of Liberty, nicknamed the Angel, in shining bronze, godlike, holding in one hand the broken chains of tyranny, in the other the flame of freedom. 

The July column stands on the site of what was once the world’s most notorious jail, the Bastille, whose fall we celebrate every year, on July 14th. But it doesn’t quite commemorate the events of 1798. It was erected in memory of another revolution, the one of 1830. There have been quite a few of them, an entire relay. Like traffic lights. 1848, then the Commune of 1870. And then two world wars. Not forgetting May 1968. 

Week in week out, we watch the TV, waiting for news from the president, as to when this will end, and how. It’s been an altogether strange few years here, the terror attacks, the massacre at the Bataclan, the yellow vests rioting on the Champs Elysées, the general strikes only a few weeks ago, when firemen battled with policemen, when doctors and nurses, lawyers and judges, left their gowns heaped in the streets. Institutions paralysed, and at war. And now this. History is galloping on. And the trees on the rue de Rivoli were all of a sudden, devastatingly, in leaf, and I hadn’t really noticed that.

You can listen to Gerry reading this text that was written specifically for a Galley Beggar Press podcast. There’s also an excellent introduction by the ever brilliant Sam Jordison. Listen to it here.

@gerryfeehily