Do not put the blow job on the first page: the moral of this story, which we will get to in due course.
Some years ago, in South Africa, there was a practice known as necklacing. This involved putting a gasoline-soaked automobile tire around somone's neck then setting it on fire.
At an opera staged in South Africa, the organizer -- presumably the producer or the director -- caused an automobile tire to be placed on the stage. The reference to the current phenomenon of necklacing clearly communicated itself to the audience, and the audience was offended.
Opera may, at times, deal with strong material, such death and doom, but reality is buffered by the fact that we are in the sacred precincts of art. Reality is mediated by the conventions of high art, and one of these conventions is that reality is not real. We do not have to take this as seriously as if it were for real.
But the intrusive automobile tire punched home an undeniable fact: there is a very real world out there where people are destroying other people, hideously, with burning automobile tires.
Some years later, I was sitting in the library skimming through GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, a long and complex novel by Thomas Pynchon, of whom Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia says (with italics here rendered as caps):
"American novelist, known for his experimental writing techniques that involve extremely complicated plots and themes. His most famous novel, GRAVITY'S RAINBOW (1973), won the National Book Award."
This, then, is a respectable prize-winning author who wins prizes.
The prize for which he won the above-mentioned prize includes, as I discovered while skimming through it, a scene in which a woman excretes a turd into a man's mouth.
(I remember it, across the years, as having been one turd, but perhaps I misremember, and perhaps it was multiple turds.)
Over the years, from time to time my thoughts have drifted in Pynchon's direction, and I've thought: how does this guy get away with writing stuff like that and still be accepted as what we might call a respectable writer?
I think the answer is because GRAVITY'S RAINBOW takes us into the arena of literary difficulty, which has some things in common with the world of opera.
The conventions of opera buffer us, protecting us from the harshness of reality, the smell of the burning rubber, the melting of the cheap synthetic T-shirt dripping hot onto the blistering skin, the harshness of the smoke in the lungs of the tormented victim.
In opera, death and doom can be accepted as abstracts, as artistic statements. Similarly, I think, the turd being excreted into the man's mouth.
Cued by certain conventions, those of the opera, for example, or those of difficult literary texts, we grant to the artist a license which we would not grant otherwise.
Shakespeare's KING LEAR, for example, includes an eye-gouging scene which many people would probably object to if it appeared on prime-time television, but which we accept because it is taking place in the precincts of high art, in the sacred arena where the ordinary words no longer apply.
When my science fiction novel THE SHIFT was published back in 1986, it was greeted by a stony silence. I am only aware of the existence of one single review, this a favorable one in the London magazine TIME OUT.
In retrospect, all the other reviewers were put off by the sex scene which opens the book, right there on page one.
If I had first buffered the reader by taking us into the realms of Complexity and Difficulty, then I'm sure I would have gotten away with not just the blow job but with anything else that I got it into my head to deal with.
But that is not my method.
My desire has always been to confront reality as directly as possible, and this is what I have worked toward. To feel the roughness of the edge of the automobile tire being driven into the skin as the burning weight drags down the victim. As the smell of burning hair mingles with the smells of burning gasoline and burning rubber.
Anyway, with that preamble, here is the text of the first chapter of THE SHIFT, the book which I am now preparing for publication, and, all going well, will publish in a second edition later this year:
“Mabel has to go,” said Zenda Malouche.
“No,” said Troy. “I want you both.”
Iridian Troy was the kind of man who could never enjoy a cake unless he could eat all of it.
“Why not?” said Zenda.
“She'd divorce me,” said Troy. “She'd get half of everything.”
“Then kill her,” said Zenda, his adorable mistress, licking the last of the cream away from his rampant deleted.
Troy sighed as she courted his strength with her tongue. He closed his eyes and leisured back into swansdown pillows. Smooth, creamy and hot. The promise of infinite joy.
“Don't stop now!”
“Troy, darling, all I'm asking is a little favor.”
“This is blackmail,” he said.
That brought to mind the Armenian terrorists threatening his operation at EisTonPolis. Once remembered, they could not be forgotten. His dragon sagged as business problems intruded themselves.
Murmuring his name, Zenda wished there was some seductive sobriquet she could use. Nobody ever called him “Iridian”, a name he hated. When she had tried to exert her sovereignty by inventing new names for her territory — “my dearest hush-hush” and “my chickaboo-sweet” — Troy had resisted her claims with displays of appalling anger.
Now he was picking up the phone.
Even “darling” had its dangers. Troy had now been her darling twice in a single session. To make that claim on him a third time would be a frightful risk.
“Mabel, darling,” said Troy, as his phone call was answered. “How are ya, honey? Run a bath, sweetbit. I'm coming down.”
But Zenda humbled herself before him, and he stayed.
She was his slave for thirty days before she dared to ask again. When she asked, she asked big.
“I want Capri,” said Zenda Malouche.
“Anything you say, honey,” said Iridian Troy.
He was mellow with tequila and with success. His efforts in EisTonPolis had finally brought him the labor supply contract for LZ Europe. Troy had now secured the contracts for five out of seven of the Landing Zones. Seventeen years After Advent, he was well on his way to achieving his ambition, which was to control all business between the planet Earth and the Medo-Mordran Confederation.
“When can I have it?” asked Zenda, letting her hands silk across his cooling flesh.
“What?” said Troy.
He had slipped away into a reverie about the crystal planet, Arcturus 9, which he had read about in the latest National Geographic. Ultimately, he wanted to buy a planet — at least one planet.
“Capri,” said Zenda.
“A great car,” said Troy, remembering the Ford Capri that had played such a notable part in his adolescence.
“No, the island,” said Zenda. “When can I have it?”
“Oh, that,” said Troy, munching on an agave worm. “When do you want it?”
“I want it now,” said Zenda.
“So do I,” said Troy, taking her in his arms.
But he was just kidding himself. He was too old, too fat, too heavy, too sodden with drink. He imagined himself as a young conquistador with an infinite future before him, but in truth he was dying. Nevertheless, Zenda took good care of him, pretending that he gave her pleasure.
The next day, he bought Capri. She had the run of it, but he kept it in his name.
“Happy?” he said.
“What more do you want?” said Troy.
“Isn't it almost time for Lahrisa to go away to college?”
“What, my little girl?” said Iridian Troy. “She needs her daddy.”
“Please,” said Zenda.
Zenda gave him an enema then sponged him down and licked his fundament with her delicate tongue. He liked that. But the answer was still no.
“Then I want...”
“Speak, angel,” said Troy.
“I want my picture in Paris Match. A centerspread.”
“Naked?” said Troy.
“Looking beautiful,” said Zenda.
“No trouble,” said Troy.
There was, in fact, a little bit of trouble, but two days later the ex-editor of Paris Match was exploring the delights of downtown Gourma Rharous — a locality just to the east of Timbuktu — and top feature writer Jacques Delacroix and photographer Tog Tagard had orders cut for Capri.
By now, Zenda had escalated her demands. She wanted a series of articles celebrating her role as an international hostess, trendsetter and fashion leader. Troy was amenable: his mistress could have anything she wanted, as long as she tolerated his wife, and allowed him to keep Lahrisa.
Mabrouk Ouchennane, veteran of the Legion Etranger, sodomist, murderer, thief, liar, cheat, cardsharp, cut-throat, pimp, traitor, oathbreaker, informant, scab and embezzler — he liked to keep busy — was head of Process for Human Enablements International in the new Briefing Center at EisTonPolis.
He watched as the new recruits were shaved, showered and deloused. These shorn and naked animals, bereft of all body hair, were then sedated and strapped down. Ouchennane gave a signal, and the bodies began to move along the conveyor belts. Emerging on the far side of the depilatory machines, skins now needled bright with blood, they were carried along to the production line surgeons, who inserted long-release capsules of tranquilizers and painkillers.
The recruits were now ready for electroshock therapy. With a slight smile on his face, Ouchennane paunched into the electricity room. He gave a genial nod to the Spang observer who was present. The alien, a two-meter tall reptile with fluorescent orange skin and hooded green eyes, made no response. Ouchennane was not disconcerted. He gave a lazy wave of his hand, and the slack bodies were jolted by high-voltage electricity. Having learnt that the process was used in human institutions to produce sanity, the Spang had insisted that the process be made compulsory for all new recruits.
As the Medo-Mordran Confederation did not choose to accept criminals into its workforce, the recruits were then introduced to the process used by the most advanced human civilizations for correcting criminal tendencies. To be precise, they were locked up in cages; they would be kept in those cages during the two-year journey through space to Deep Five, the military project taking shape on the far side of the galaxy.
Side by side, Ouchennane and the Spang strolled along the catwalk in the cage block, studying the new recruits. The unconscious bodies slumped behind the bars. All but one. The one, a human female, was awake; she blinked at them, her eyes dull with chemical lethargy and the aftermath of artificial lightning.
“Deviant,” said the Spang. “How can you cure it?”
“We can drill out part of the brain,” said Ouchennane.
“Or we can kill it.”
“Open the cage,” said the Spang.
Ouchennane thumbed a button. The cage opened. The Spang dragged out the woman, dislocating her shoulder in the process. She offered no resistance as he knifed open her body and tore out the pancreas. Very shortly, she was dead. And the Spang was feeding.
The tarpaulin gave a little shade, but the heat was stifling all the same. Clive Mercurian Sendarka swatted a fly. He mashed it — but there were a million more where that one came from.
“I don't know why they all come to me,” said Clive. “You'd think they'd show some solidarity with you — after all, you're their color.”
“They're taking revenge for the white man's colonial exploitation of Africa,” said Gabriel Arkhangel easily, concealing the pain he felt at Clive's racist jibe.
“Yeah,” said Clive. “Sure.”
And, moodily, he stared out at the parched savannah where a number of bald men and women were excavating irrigation ditches by hand. The activity struck him as being singularly pointless. This part of the Sahel was getting drier by the year. Sooner or later, the people of this resettlement camp would join the refugees trooping south to Benin, Togo, Ghana or the Ivory Coast.
The resettlement camp was just north of Gorom Gorom in Burkina Faso, the country known until 1984 as Upper Volta. Here, people who had worked out their labor contacts with the Spang were given the opportunity to make a new life for themselves. Well, that was what the propaganda said — in truth, most of them would soon be dead, just like the survivors at the other resettlement camps in Siberia, Greenland, Paraguay and Sumatra.
Clive pulled out his ray gun and drew a bead on one of the workers. His fingers started to tighten on the trigger.
“Hey!” said Gabriel.
The gun cackled.
“Very good, commander,” said the gun. “You've scored a direct hit!”
And, with relief, Gabriel realized it was not the real thing but just the Space Cadet version sold to kids whose parents had more money than sense.
“How's business, anyway?” said Gabriel, trying — not for the first time — to try to develop some kind of rapport with Clive Sendarka.
“Not so good,” said Clive. “You'd think they'd learn something out there in the stars, but when they come back all they do is bitch about the food. We got back one kid who said he'd picked up the secret of perpetual motion but he cracked under interrogation. Just another schizoid psychotic.”
Clive Sendarka was head of Recovery, which was supposed to use the knowledge gained by returning workers to unlock the secrets of the universe. Over the last ten years, Recovery had produced a better mouse-trap and a couple of minor discoveries in the more arcane branches of topology; Iridian Troy was not impressed.
“How's your own sling?” said Clive.
Gabriel was unfamiliar with the idiom — a noxious bit of gutter argot, no doubt — but guessed its meaning.
“The same as ever,” he said. “At Search, we're getting a 27 percent re-enlistment rate, but within a month half of them die for no obvious reason. We estimate that the median —”
“Spare us,” said Clive. “It's too hot for statistics.”
He fired the ray gun, which once more told him of his triumphs, then holstered his toy and began dipping a little moist snuff. His elaborate curled mustache was wet with drops of perspiration.
“It's interesting how they all die, though,” said Gabriel.
“Too much radiation, probably,” said Clive.
And he hit the “play” button of his portable compact disk player. A stream of discord came blaring out of the loudspeakers: the sound of a herd of drunken electronic elephants crashing through the heart of a disintegrating galaxy while a vigorous vandal fed a stream of lightbulbs and neurotic lemmings to the blades of an angry lawnmower. Gabriel reached out hurriedly and switched it off.
“What's the matter?” said Clive. “Don't you like electronic music?”
“That's not music,” said Gabriel. “That's pure unadulterated fashion, and a degenerate fashion at that.”
“So what do you like? Bongo drums?”
“Well — Beethoven's the greatest composer, Mozart the most talented. But on the whole I prefer Handel. He's the most civilized. He never loses his sense of proportion.”
“Come on,” said Clive, ignorant but combative nevertheless. “How can you suggest that Mozart hasn't got a sense of proportion?”
“Anyone who can write opera has to have a melodramatic streak a mile wide,” said Gabriel. Having made this mot, he began to have the uncomfortable feeling that Handel had written operas too – quite a number of them. He would have to look it up. Art was his field, not music. For the moment he pressed on recklessly. “Sometimes Mozart goes right over the top. Of course, he's too talented to make a really gross mistake like Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.”
“Beethoven's a genius,” said Clive.
“When did you last hear Beethoven's Seventh Symphony? Have you ever heard Beethoven's Seventh Symphony? No? No! I can tell you as a fact --”
“Go back to the lecture room, professor,” said Clive, and switched on his music again.
Fortunately, his music, so called, was then interrupted by the arrival of a snark. The big machine settled right on top of the slit trench latrines. A man disembarked from the snark; it was Ivan McCaffrey, the dragon hunter.
“Gabriel,” said McCaffrey, “the Big Man wants you. Now. At Capri. We've got a transit standing by at Gao. Get in the snark.”
“Hey,” said Gabriel, “not so fast. All my things are still back in the Sheraton at Ouagadougou.”
“You can pick up a toothbrush at Gao,” said McCaffrey. “But you can't go back for your luggage. Troy wants you – fast!”
“Got room for one more?” said McCaffrey.
“Sure,” said McCaffrey. “Hop in.”
As their snark flew north, some desert dissidents based near I-n-Tilelt fired on them fired on them with an antiquated surface-to-air missile, but missed. They made the airfield at Gao, transferred to the transit and blasted off, on their way to Capri.
“Why did Clive come back with you?” said Troy. “Unknown, sir,” said Gabriel.
“That ponced-up schmuck is after my daughter,” said Troy. Keep him away from her. You hear? You fail and the consequences will be unlimited. Got that? Unlimited!”
“I'll do my best, sir.”
“You do that. And while you are doing that, don't get any ideas about her yourself. I don't like miscegenation. Got that?”
“Sir. Yes sir.”
“'Kay. Now get outta here.”
Gabriel made a short bow and departed. Shortly, as Iridian Troy was savoring the details of the latest torture report from Mabrouk Ouchennane – as a sideline, Ouchennane was attending to the demolition of low-grade executives who had offended the Big Man – Gabriel Arkhangel was on his way to Salerno International Airport.
Naples, nuked during the War of Initiation, had never been rebuilt; Salerno now had the only airfield of any size in all of Campania. Gabriel had landed there earlier in the day in the transit which had brought him from Gao, and resented the fact that Troy had made him journey out to Capri for a briefing which could have been done by telephone.
Gabriel, a svelte black with connoisseur tastes and an income to match, held his job as head of Search simply because Iridian Troy liked to have at least one employee who was susceptible to the more subtle forms of humiliation. Knowing that Gabriel liked to do a good job, Troy continually set him impossible deadlines, then upbraided Gabriel in public when they were not met. Other tricks included interrupting Gabriel's routine to have him serve drinks at parties, or run messenger-boy errands.
Dragging Gabriel back from his tour of inspection in Burkina Faso so he could play chauffeur for a visiting French journalist was par for the course.
Gabriel knew he was being paid to eat shit. He hated it – but he needed the money. Seventeen years After Advent there were still tens of millions of people unemployed in the aftermath of the War of Initiation. If he lost this job, or resigned, he would never get work again – Troy would see to that. Sometimes Troy threatened to fire him. Then Gabriel had to beg, and beg he did.
Sometimes, after a session with Troy, Gabriel found himself seething with homicidal rage. But, confronted with Troy, he was the perfect servile servant. He bowed and shuffled, and managed the appropriate smiles and smalltalk. He suffered nightmares, palpitations, chest pains and attacks of agoraphobia, but endured these symptoms in silence, suspecting that they were psychosomatic and would persist until he left his job. Besides, he dared not seek help, knowing that anything he told anyone was likely to become Troy's property – and probably sooner rather than later.
Now, driving through Amalfi on the way to Salerno, he was glad that he was once more out of range of his boss. He had switched off the car radio and had left his electronic paging device back at his new office on Capri, so nobody could contact him until he reached the airport.
After leaving Amalfi, his trip was uneventful until he saw a woman standing in the middle of the road. She was dressed in what appeared to be transparent blue silk. She was ringed with an aura of green light. Suspecting that this apparition was all part of a Mafia hold-up, Gabriel put his foot down. The car surged forward. The woman dived in front of the car – and the vehicle went right through her.
Gabriel hit the brakes. The car skidded to a halt. He looked back, and saw the woman still standing in the road. He must have missed her. Should he drive on? Maybe she was an escaped mental patient or something. Maybe she needed his help. He reversed, and hit the button that lowered the windows. He shouted at her.
“Hey, what's the matter? You crazy or something? You could've been killed. You speak English? Huh?”
Under the transparent blue silk, the woman appeared to be naked, yet her body seemed hairless and seamless. He supposed she was wearing some kind of bodystocking. Maybe she was a professional, working the road.
The woman leaned forward and addressed him in a clear, well-modulated voice.
“Gabriel, I have come to implore you to lend your enhancements to the Reunification.”
“Hey,” said Gabriel, “what kind of weirdo are you? Did Troy send you? Is this one of the Big Man's little jokes?”
“Gabriel, listen to me. I have very little time. You know exactly who you are and what you are. Only fear hides --”
“Cut the psychobabble,” said Gabriel, sharply.
He was still shaking, still flushed with adrenalin. He still remembered that appalling moment when the car had appeared to crash straight into the woman. Frightened by having come so close to killing someone, he spoke roughly. If this was one of Troy's jokes then the Big Man had finally gone too far.
“Time forces,” said the woman, sounding breathless. “Victor's justice. I must attempt the ascent without you.”
Before his eyes, she started to rise toward the sky. For a moment it seemed that a miracle might happen. Golden light sheathed her in glory.
Then, when she was still close to the ground, something went wrong. Her body faltered, then tore apart into ragged purple light. Gabriel heard the distant echo of a failing scream. Then the apparition was gone. Crippled thunder staggered across the sky and fell silent.
Gabriel jerked open his briefcase. Inside was a can of mace, a pistol, a small but powerful computer, and an array of strictly personal detection and communication apparatus. He pressed a button marked “SCAN”, a button marked “SEARCH” and a button marked “GO”. A minute later a small printer spat out a tape giving an analysis of any and all local electronic activity.
The analysis showed nothing unusual.
Moving stiffly, Gabriel took the pistol and got out of the car. The hot, dusty landscape offered little cover for any enemy. Out to see, a half-submerged Trawl was plowing through the water. Inland, automated farming equipment was at work on the land. What else was in sight? A couple of chemical plants, an array of missile bunkers, a clutter of refugee shanties, and clear blue sky above sea and hills. Otherwise, nothing
A bus was coming along the road. Gabriel felt suddenly foolish, standing there with a gun in his hand. He got back into his vehicle and drove off. He supposed he would have to accept the woman for what she surely was – another symptom.
Nightmare, palpitations, chest pains, attacks of angst, visual and auditory hallucinations – the list was getting impressive. Was he insane? Not yet, brother – but he was getting there.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” said Klaus the Computer.
“To get to the other side,” said Lahrisa.
“Why didn't the Greek cross the market-place?”
“Because he was afraid it would a-gore him,” said Klaus the Computer. “Get it? Get it? A pun on agoraphobia.”
“No, I don't get it,” said Lahrisa, frowning. “It's not a pun. And if it is, it's a very bad one. Give me a point!”
“I'm sorry,” said Klaus the Computer, “but --”
Lahrisa shut him off, thus winning the game. Then she picked up the phone and rang Switzerland.
“Are my chocolates ready yet?”
“Not yet, Miss Troy. We've had a small technical hitch. We've --”
“Bums,” said Lahrisa rudely.
Then she rang Antarctica to see how Antenor was doing. He was doing just fine.
Then she phoned her latest analyst, who was in Nome, Alaska, for a conference.
“Child,” he said, “do you know what time it is?”
“Don't talk to me like that,” said Lahrisa, with a note of warning in her voice. “Remember what happened to Mr Skoal.”
She actually had no idea what fate had befallen the unfortunate Mr Skoal. He had simply disappeared, shortly after he had made the mistake of making advances to her. But she was sure something had happened to him. Something permanent, probably.
“What did happen to Mr Skoal?” said her latest analyst.
“Dragons got him,” said Lahrisa imperiously. “Aren't you interested in my problem?”
“Child ... all right, tell me your problem.”
“There was an old-fashioned cure for bored and badly-behaved children. It involved spanking them soundly and sending them to bed without any supper. It sometimes had truly remarkable results.”
“I'm going to tell my daddy on you,” said Lahrisa, and put the phone down.
Through her window she could see Clive Sendarka standing on the terrace, looking out to sea. He was wearing a pink jacket and a tartan kilt. Real swash! He had good legs.
Turning towards her window, he saw her and waved. She waved back. She still remembered how he had kissed her. Next time, she wanted more than a kiss.