The Book, the Machine, and the Corpse of her Values

Literary Agnosia

“Henrietta Saffron changed my life!” That was the one that really choked her goat. Who could have churned out something so deficient in irony than the straight-faced and loose-laced intellectuals of the seventies? Oh, but wait: “Required reading for the new age of the 80s.”

Droll.

By the nineties they’d crucified the last of the scepticism and inquiry and named her the most important writer of the nineteenth century.

Talk about tossing a banana into a bus-load of monkeys.

All for a book.

The Book.

What did they know? She had trouble getting out of bed in the morning just like everyone else, though on days after treatment, more so. And just like the rest of them she blinked behind her dark sunglasses into the same nothingness every day. What an idea it is to have no idea. But oh, the praise! Praise for the Book! Vats of it. Obsequious glucose spraying from the corners of political houses as from a trumpet spit-valve; it slithered out of Peruvian cafes with well-stocked bookshelves and no WiFi, thrummed from carpeted television sets, sociology lounges and metropolitan broadsheets. Yes. The world had read the Book. It had loved the Book.

Yet Henrietta had not, and still could not understand why. Oh, she had read the Book. She had torn it apart in her study under a dim light with a magnum of Champagne, pored over the PhD theses whose erudite titles included, Saffron and the Finite Dimension of New Philosophy, and the nauseatingly baffling, The Big Bang of Femininity: Coetaneous Nascency and Demise in the Literature of Saffron. She had fallen to sleep to the audio version while passively masturbating to the he-so-low crooning of Barry White; annotated the crumbling pages of her first editions until they resembled the passionate and indecipherable scribblings on the wall of Juliet’s House. All without revelatory compensation. Thirty-nine years had shot by without so much as a single bathtub light bulb moment. What were these people thinking?

She had written the Book in that thrombotic year they called 1970; it had spasmed and dislodged itself all over the orange plastic of her interior décor, and demanded that she scrawl the thing the out of her mind. A 73,492-word dry retch. Most of it was coherent: the abstract bawlings of a failing Arts student. She’d called it gormless, embarrassing, and was reluctant to show it to anyone; least of all to her second-year sociology lecturer. Especially not to him. But fate stomped on that insecurity like a Parisian pedestrian on fresh dog shit when Nigel found the first draft under her mattress while she was on the toilets smoking a joint. Afterwards he’d said to her that her words had devoured his pulmonary cavity and exploded through his shoulder blades.

And if she’d become a solipsist then it was they who had compelled her; if she was arrogant, then it was only because they expected it from her. It is arrogant to tell your fans that they’d all been conned by the affectations of an idealist drunk, whose only claim to enlightenment was the secret film of tobacco and Moroccan hash between unread pages of a stolen copy of Atlas Shrugged? Surely not. Unless there was indeed something she was missing. The sociology lecturer never told her before he left for Columbia.

It was that damn book. The one that had “defined a [fucking] generation”, then “defined the generation that had defined that [fucking] generation; the one that had motivated legions of literature students to purchase second-hand moleskins and drink blended Scotch Whisky (and not even her preferred brand); the one that had been “fiercely written with the quill of centuries” (this title-dwarfing quote appeared on the cover of the recent twenty-first edition). Who made up this unimprovably ludicrous spittle? What about “fraud gets another free ride”? Or “one more typing tantrum from an exploited female undergraduate”? But no, the more withdrawn and ambiguous you are, the more profound you seem. That’s the rule. All she could do was shrug, bank the cheques, sign the books, nod or hold their trembling hands as she told them, “I understand you”, while suppressing the need to vomit on their jute lapels. And with time, the eye shadow grew thicker and thicker and the comforting nods less perceptible until she finally arrived at the-joke’s-on-you-topia and settled in for the long ride.

Henrietta had written follow ups, sure. Slaved over them. Picked up an encyclopaedic knowledge of arthritis and lung infections and a diary full of lovers in the process. Her publishers had been obliged you see (because of… you know what) and each time had dutifully engaged a factory somewhere in middle China to print, bind and distribute two-hundred thousand copies. Sales waned, book tours turned into debates on corporate publishing, a couple of radio stations called to probe her about the phenomenon of writer’s block, then the whole charade was quietly boxed and shipped off to high-schools and libraries in developing countries. The Book had beaten her on every turn. She’d become terrified of writing anything – letters, birthday cards, to-do lists. She didn’t dare enter her office, where her keyboard rattled on the maple desk, insisting to know the purpose of all that damn typing when the Book had already been written; that rampage of words that, when you read it, throttled everything you thought you believed in (and those were only the first three chapters), and each time the tiny voice in your head whimpered, “yes, but…”, the Book slapped it in the face like it had just farted during a performance of Rigoletto. What had she been thinking? Everyone seemed to know except her.

They’d tried to tell her of course. They’d written whole jungles of essays and reviews, thrown fireworks into internet forums, built fan sites and blogs, and released swarms of emails. Words upon words swirling around her little book of thoughts, the Book, each one of them shooting out from the centre of the universe at light speed, filling every blank surface that stood in their way on the never-ending quest for meaning. Some fucking Big Bang.

“So I’ve changed your life,” Henrietta had said to her oncologist, her earrings banging against her cheeks. “Pray tell me, who’ll do the honour of changing mine?”

That honour went to a jelly-nosed essayist by the name of Adham Jones (with a silent ‘h’). It was in the dark hours of another post-literary event assembly, just after the effect of the cocktails and oxygen deprivation caused by frequent self-congratulation had worn off. The discussion turned predictably to the pile of obituaries. 2020: the year of the dead and dying biographers, all of whom had had the perfect decency to turn their last pages in a year that one could finally remember. Who dies in 2019 anyway?

When the lamentations over the dozens of  vacuums that could never be filled were through, followed by the lamentations that these vacuums had already been fisted with a breed of punctuated know-it-alls with picture book livers, Henrietta found herself at the shoulder of Mr Jones, who was busy throwing his small hands in the air and quoting the words of one of the fallen giants, whose name she had already forgotten

“His novels clutched at his readers’ throats,” Jones said. “They hold fast and hard and choke them as they turn each page, they knew that, even though it kills them, they have to reach the end, swallow every word, for they realise that without the single strands, the rope is not complete. ‘It’s a shame,’ he once told me, ‘that that my own death will never be so sweet’.”

Henrietta donated a laugh, as did the others, and just like the others, these poet laureates and pale authors of future classics and tomes of ages, a nervousness bit at her cheeks. Like an school orchestra making its debut, they blinked and covered their mouths, and gulped down the self-doubt.

And then Jones flew to her. “What of you, darling? Have you not also wished to read your works for the first time? To feel what your readers feel when the put your work to rest and lean back in their beds in the dark at night?”

What could she say? These people were her fellow conmen and conwomen. They had as much a clue as her as why anyone did anything, let alone favourably interpret what they’d written.

”At times, I have,” she replied, “then I realise that I have no right to know. The experience of the individual is untouchable, and any attempt for me to deconstruct universal attributes would be a waste of my time. I write with no intention to receive.”

Jones crunched his facial orifices together like a honeyed crumpet. In her ear he whispered a name, then promised to email her the “second he had a spare second”. Seconds later, a nosebleed swept her to the bathroom, and when she came back, Jones had fled.

The email never came, but a parcel containing Adham Jones’ latest band of political essays and a translucent plastic business card did. There was note: “You didn’t get this from me.” On the card was the address of one Professor Clem De Winter, Neurosurgeon and Literary Enlightener, with the simple instructions to “call ahead”.

And so she did. There was no reason not to really. Not now.

*     *     *

The directions on the back of the card led her to the eighth floor of an anonymous factory in the city’s industrial belt. She arrived fifteen minutes late, emerging from the elevator in a slow moving cloud of Chanel No. 5, her racing hat pointed at the fluorescent lights. It was the tardiness she’d mastered after years of touring (“No matter what you do Saffron,” her editor had assured her, “you blow them up all like a god damn balloon, those sycophants, the journalists and the deans, and you keep blowing until they’re so agitated they’re about to propitiate over the floor, then you take the stage like you’re there to read them the weather.”).

The Book was in her handbag, the custard-coloured first edition, seated neatly between her travel pillow and a brick of aspirin.

“Where am I to go, dear?” she asked the pert receptionist with the name ‘Charity’ stitched into her uniform.

Those who measure cognitive recognition would have known that Charity’s reaction time was above average for a woman of her age and educational background. Henrietta could almost hear the synaptic penny drop, and there was the briefest of moments before her docility subsided and her teeth and eyelashes began groping in the air. It would be only a matter of seconds before her painted fingers were darting for a black marker and a signature pad. To Henrietta’s relief and disappointment, she didn’t.

“Welcome, Ms Saffron,” Charity said. “The professor is expecting you.”

“I should hope so,” she said quickly and slapped down the appointment card on the counter. “I’ve been waiting for a month.”

“Up the hall and to the left. There’s just one form-”

“No forms. No time. I’ll see myself in.” Forms, bureaucratic or otherwise, were a source of loathing. Towers of forms, tick the boxes, sign here, date here, did you read the fine print? don’t forget to send it registered, it will take until the next ice age to process; the whole act of completing and submitting them either led to despair or to absolutely nothing, yet the world was obsessed with them. Henrietta had often fantasised about the ramifications of a complete ban on all types of form filling. How would the world be able to tell who was who, what was why, when to die and, more importantly, where to park? Would the world stop spinning? The bureaucrats shriek in unison before disappearing in a puffs of carbon atoms? It all sounded deliciously tangible to the point where the day on which she’d decided to lower her own pen and delegate all form-related business to her assistant, she almost detected a slight tremor in the earth’s rotation, a reversal in the natural order.

Face locked to the front, eyeballs gyrating, Henrietta took in her surroundings. Glass and steel, an odd burst of chlorophyll, several impressionist rectangles. As she trotted up the hall, she caught a glimpse of a room labelled the ‘Reading Room’. A leather recliner. Not bad. Water fountain. Shelves of orange-spines. The classics. Indeed. And, of course, the machine: the sleek cube, ribboned with rainbow tubes, its dials already fluttering, willing her in. Or the ‘Revelatory Room’, as the great poet Anton Forester had described it after stumbling out, swearing never to touch a keyboard or his beloved absinthe again. She hesitated and patted the bulge in her handbag. The Book kicked back in protest. The bastard actually kicked.

“Ms Saffron!” Professor De Winter exclaimed from the crack in the door. He beckoned her to enter by tapping a paper coffee mug on his desk. “Right on time.”

Refusing to be insulted for not having kept anyone waiting, Henrietta showed the professor her recently groomed nostrils and strode into the office.

Professor De Winter’s office was marginally bigger than her shoe closet, a dustless cavity, but with more light and a slight echo in the rafters. Along the window sill, where the jars of pickled brains and electroshock therapy forceps should have been were stacks of books: Shakespeare, Plato, Proust, the Koran, the complete works of Naguib Mahfouz. She looked at the professor, an eyebrow raised. Was she impressed? Not really, but you had to humour the professionals of the world, especially ones with as many letters after their name as Professor De Winter, otherwise they were likely to spit in your Darjeeling.

The professor bounced in his chair. “Much more interesting than medical journals, wouldn’t you say?” he said.

“I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of reading a medical journal.”

“A tremendously horrid experience, take it from me. Now!” he said and clapped the desk, startling a pencil, which rolled to the floor. “Did you read the booklet?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent! We always appreciate when clients take the time to read the booklet. The whole process runs much more smoothly. And you filled out the form?”

“Not yet.” A shock wave from the Earth’s core vibrated up through the chair and into her plastic hip.

“No? I really must talk with that girl. She is reliable as a dripping tap, but her memory is shot. No matter, here. We can do it together. Coffee?”

“No.”

“Any history of epilepsy?”

“No.”

“Do you ever dream of falling?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a standard question, Ms Saffron.” The professor put down his pen and pushed his frames against his nose with his palm like he was swatting a fly.

“Falling how? Dropping from a cliff? Tripping on a cord?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Then, no.”

“When is the last time you read your own work?”

“Which one?” She knew exactly to which book the professor was referring.

“The one you’ve brought with you. You did bring it with you, I hope. We probably have our own copy somewhere, but we find everything proceeds more smoothly when the author has their own personal copy with them.”

Henrietta hugged her handbag closer to her chest. “I have it, yes. I think the last time I read it cover to cover was about ten years ago.”

“Good. Very good. And how did that make you feel? Can you remember?”

“What sorts of questions are these?”

“How did you feel when you read your own words, Ms Saffron? Contented? Agitated?”

“If you must know I was feeling under the weather. I had a migraine. How many questions are there?”

“Not many more. Any prescription drugs?”

“Yes.”

“Can I ask which ones?”

“Tira… Tirapasta.. oh, I forget. It sounds Italian.”

The professor’s bushy eyebrows caterpillared for a moment. “Tirapazamine?”

She nodded.

“How long have you been receiving radiation therapy, Ms Saffron?”

“A few weeks, maybe more. Is that a problem?”

“No, I shouldn’t think so. We might have to set up a secondary monitoring system, but I think everything will be fine.”

The seat was comfortable and the lamp that arched over her shoulder shone down on her with an inoffensive aura. First impressions count; the initial glance, the one up, the understanding nod… after all, that’s what she was here for, wasn’t it? The professor told her to prepare her reading, breathe deeply and make herself comfortable as he turned the coloured dials backwards and forwards. She extracted the book from her handbag, considered  taking an aspirin or two, but thought better of it, and opened the torn cover up to the first page.

‘For Nigel’

 For Nigel indeed.

“Uh-uh,” the Professor De Winter waved his finger. Henrietta snapped the book shut. “No peeking until we’ve activated our little friend her. We don’t want any PEs.”

“PEs?”

“Prejudice Echos. It was all explained in the booklet, Ms Saffron. So now, I’m going to place the nodes on your temples. They’re a bit cool to the touch but I promise you they won’t hurt a  bit. As you will have read, the effect usually lasts a good five to six hours. We’ll be monitoring you the whole time so there’s no danger. You can even get up to stretch your legs every now and then. Have you been to the toilet?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

The metal pads were ice cubes on her skin. She adjusted her hat and felt the wig on her scalp move with it. This is what it has come to: the culmination of her literary career, strapped to a rainbow-coloured car battery with a forty-year of book of secrets on her lap, and not a journalist, literary academic or pseudo-philosopher in sight. This was her greatest work and she was staring it down, like a diver challenging the sink hole, taut with the anticipation of discovering something for the first time.

“Are we ready? You might experience a mild wave of dizziness at first, so I’d ask you to close your eyes until you hear the beep. By that time I’ll be next door in the monitoring room.”

Henrietta closed her eyes and listened to the whelping hum of the machine beside her. She winced. A pre-emptive wince, then groped  for the warm leather of the cushion beneath her to remind her where she was. The hum was higher in pitch than the cream spaceship that had been blasting her with electrons for the past month. The difference was that she was still fully clothed and there were no masks or rubber gloves puppeteering  about her chest today. The machine grew louder and the book heavier, as if seeking escape. Henrietta smiled. Judgement day awaits, you piece of shit. The forty-year enigma, waiting in line to be stripped of its cardboard burka and laid bare among all the other volumes who have evaded their makers’ attempts to understand them. Oh the tortuous rapture!

A single beep, a microwave heating a slice of quiche, rouses me from my dream. Am I hungry? Not sure, but that would be novel. New smells, of perfume, oils and… what’s this? A gentle rustle of paper against my suit, wool, a nice cut, something moving between my thighs. I pick up the book and run my hand over its cover. There’s a name in black script over orange: Henrietta Saffron. I never did think much of marriage… not after Nigel. And the title, simple, yet bold and true. ‘The Corpse of my Values.’ Orange band. Dutch? Something I would have picked naturally, back then. Back when? The words are new and frightening, they rear up like a mouse at the refrigerator door. I can see why he liked it, why the peacock ripped it from my mattress and strutted about with the pages fanned before his beautiful head. It’s about him after all, this book. It’s his tombstone, touching the world as he touched me, forcing the stalks of his fingers between mine, pushing down the typewriter keys. Yes. It’s a love song. To nobody, to everybody, to him,  ‘love me! love me!’ it’s crying into the darkness. There I am again, sitting alone on the floor of that despicable apartment, smoking his cigarettes. The day my father died. Was it a Wednesday?

She didn’t noticed the machine shudder into silence. Six hours had passed. Only the words. The words drifted around her, back onto the page and arranged themselves in line before her eyes. They were her words, her commas, her split infinitives. It only took a blink for the trance to break and she was back in Professor De Winter’s reading room clutching at the book with a fierce desire to throw it at the closed door and walk out.

“There’s no need to say more today. Go home and rest. I’d like for you to come back in next week for a final follow-up session, just a chat really, plus a check up. We want to gauge your experiences, and make sure that there are no residual effects.”

“Residual effects…” Henrietta attempted to raise herself from the chair but found that her muscles were not obeying.

“Very rare. Nothing to worry about. Some authors experience a slight amnesia, but, it’s nothing. No, no, nothing like that. Perhaps I phrased it wrongly. It’s more of a temporary agnosia, a displacement of perception, just traces of the machine’s effects. What you have to do now is go home and relax. Try not to think about what you have read today… behave normally.”

“How long does it take? I mean… for me to understand?”

“The RE, the revelation event, comes when it does, like the wind. It varies and depends on your level of psychic constipation, but when it comes, you’ll know. Find somewhere quiet and safe. Write down your thoughts, that helps some. ”

*     *     *

Adham Jones had left a message.

“I’m so delighted you decided to consult the professor, darling. Let’s make a date to discuss your revelation. This is a major publication deal in the making and I am dying to write the foreword.”

She felt a fear trickle down into her breast. Could it be happening so soon? She quickly turned off all the lights, located some writing materials, and sat as cross-legged as her years allowed on the polished floor in front of her balcony window. There she waited in the noise and silence, among the rose oil and hair conditioner. Outside, the city lights recited their silent code in yellows and reds and blues, the night sky pulsated with unlimited indifference. Inside, in her mind, the Book waited. She could feel its rhythms as it drummed against her lobes and rushing over newly-architected neurons; released, wild, and desperate for recognition. “Nigel,” she heard herself say and looked around her apartment to see if it was truly her who had spoken. Although the rational part of her mind dismissed it immediately, she could not help but wonder if it – the Book – knew she was alone, if it understood her impotence. Her heart pounded.

And when the truth was finally delivered? What of it? Would she become like the others? Her readers: the fatuous gaggle of critics and academics and consumers of prize-list literature? Would the Book finally reveal its purity and beauty and allow her redemption? Or would she become her own fan? A terrible outcome she shook from her thoughts. Might it reveal what she’d always suspected: that she was a fraud, a product of the random sequencing of words, over which she had little influence, whose abilities were no greater than a prospector sifting for gold in a lake of silt? She wasn’t sure which form of dissatisfaction would be more lethal.

A light breeze enter the room. Henrietta Saffron removed her earrings, gathered the pen and paper on her lap and waited.

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