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ONE: em-cee cube
Once we knew that fiction was about life and criticism was about fiction--and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about other fiction, is criticism in fact, or metafiction. And we know that criticism is about the impossibility of anything being about life, or even about fiction, or, finally, about anything.
::Robert Scholes, "The fictional criticism of the future"
lost in the
For hours I loitered in the empty cat-reeking rooms, studying the children's encyclopedia entries, the obsessive computer calculations, the 50-word sagas, the correspondence with the mad woman (her originals, his carbon copies, from years before word processors), the odorous stacks of mimeographed quipu, the wall of fourteen photographs.
the first photograph
This oblique monochrome portrait is grainy, somber, regretful, bursting with a droning darkness despite the abundance of light, the reverberations of the afternoon sun. All the low swell and ripple of the sea traps shadows like crushed foil in its looping lacy brightness. Caroline is captured lightly askew, her expression as passive and warm as a Fra Filippo Lippi madonna. Eroded tussocky cliffs blur in the background, gnawed by this sea and wind, made by mere brute elements into a gothic construct in a land too new for Gothic ruins. Foreground to this remote menace, Caroline's long pale heavy hair is blown by the sea's wind, and the angled sun makes shadows on her face like faint healing wounds. She watches nothing particularly, simply standing in the rough sand with hands in the deep pockets of her leather coat, the denim of her jeans pressing the tibia bones of herbraced legs.
the second photograph
Just inside the glass doors of the university cafeteria, Caroline looks across the checkerboard of Formica tables, the enormous room crowded with adolescents, young women with scrubbed features caught on one foot by the camera as they cross the floor, trays balanced, a wisp of steam rising from plates of sausages and emulsified vegetables, boys or men with hair tugged back into rubber bands, massively bearded or pocked with boils, polo-neck sweaters, high-heel boots stretched under the tables, coffee cups piled and toppling, and in all the silent stillness of the photograph a vast rumble of voices and clashing crockery and industrial machines in the kitchen that serves the servery. In Caroline's arms is a tall, heavy pile of textbooks. Her shoulder-bag has swung uncomfortably around under her left arm, and she is trying with her right elbow to adjust its pressure. It is impossible to judge what she is looking at.
the third photograph
Few cars are parked along the gutters of the cul de sac. To judge by the sharp, foreshortened shadows, the time must be close to midday. At the street's end, a wooden fence closes off an elevated stretch of railway tracks. A housewife with scarf knotted on bleached hair peers with concern from her half-open front door. In the center of the street, collapsed part of the way to the black asphalt, Caroline presses her hands against the sides of her head, blocking her ears. Her mouth is twisted and open, teeth showing, tongue pulled back. The hands at her ears are clenched. The housewife's attention has been caught by the screams. There is no evident cause for this screaming. This screaming has gone on for a long time. Caroline wears a corduroy miniskirt and tall pale boots. Her hair is held by a ribbon. A man of medium height with longish hair bends his knees at her side, supporting her sagging weight with hands positioned beneath her armpits. His face is not visible in the photograph. In the photograph, the screaming continues.
1983: mercy call
Through the electronic long distance pips, Brian Wagner hears his party identify the number just dialed, and add, "Marjory Finlay speaking."
"Top of the morning to you darling, and I just called to see if you might like to slip around to my place for a quickie." After a moment of humming long-distance silence he says, "It's a lovely day for it, the sky's all black with smoke from the bushfires, puts a tickle in your nose and a song in your heart. Tell me I'm tempting you."
"Wagner. I might have known. What do you want, you pig?"
"Your body and your mind, in that order." Before he can get in another word there's a click in his ear. Marjory has hung up.
Grinning, Brian takes his finger out of his ear, turns quickly and squints through the dusty panes of the booth up and down the street. Tired shoppers wobble past, none of them especially officious. His hand goes to the bench that holds the two frayed, mutilated directories, his own battered collection of phone numbers opened at F, his cigarettes. He can't find his piece of wire.
A woman with a laden bag of vegetables approaches, glancing speculatively at the booth. Brian holds the handpiece to his ear while he squats, looking among the ash, butts, bits of torn directory paper, piss stains, dried seeds, cellophane and crushed cardboard for his length of wire. It's gone. Sighing, he goes through his pockets for another paper clip. You never have two when you need the extra one. He finds one.
The woman has stopped. She is clearly a Muslim of some denomination, head wrapped in cloth, enormous breasts swelling without constraint to the bulging shelf of her belly, which takes up the task and tumbles in a corporeal waterfall to some point near her knees. He wonders what Marjory's feminist response would be to the sight of these horribly enslaved creatures. After all, false consciousness rampant! Apparently, though, it is inappropriate to rebuke them for their complicity, since that is to endorse a view of women as victims, a more heinous crime than ignoring women's rights to equality and self-definition.
Brian is disturbed by these migrant women. He cringes at the sight of constantly pregnant women kowtowing to their strutting, hawking, spitting, ogling men. The pointless waste of it. This one has put all her shopping on the pavement now and is gazing from her wimple through the door, waiting for him to conclude his call and let her in. They use no deodorants, either. At least he's been spared the olfactory hazard of following her.
He untwists the metal wire of the paperclip and prepares his magic trick. Suitably enough he's learned how to do this from Joseph, who had it from a nuclear theoretician in Armidale. The larceny of scientists. Leaning at a peculiar angle to cut off the woman's line-of-sight, he dials the 043 prefix for Pearl Beach, 600 miles to the north. One end of the dog-legged wire goes through the perforations of the mouth piece, nudging it right up into the diaphragm. Holding the handpiece to the box, he jams the other end of the wire into the metal keyhole that opens the box to authorized money collectors. This is the magic pass; it works one time in three, depending on conditions that Wagner cannot even begin to estimate. Presumably a current passes in a strange feedback loop through the device, convincing the poor dumb instrument that it is being fed copious quantities of gold. Or that the call is taking place within the local-call zone.
Brian dials Finlay's Sydney number once more. The moment the racheting dial concludes its last circuit, he snatches handpiece and incriminating wire from its illegal congress. The Muslim gazes in with growing suspicion, going from foot to foot. A newspaper scandal has revealed that they are routinely subject at birth, or sometimes at puberty, to the surgical removal of the clitoris, the better to create tractable brood mares for their appalling men. His stomach clenches at the thought. The phone is ringing.
Beep beep beep. "I'm sorry, Marjory," he says at once, before she can identify herself. "It's the strain. Forgive me. I throw myself on the mercy of the court."
"Strain? What strain?" Ray Finlay asks. The line is superlative, crisp as a local call. Wonderful what they can do with satellites, or is it landlines?
"Joseph's cracking up. He's falling apart. No one can budge him from his house. Somebody should have forced him to sell that damned place when his parents died. It's an Edgar Allan Poe tomb. He's been untimely interred."
"For heaven's sake, Brian."
"Sorry, sorry. Now I've gone and offended Marj on top of everything else."
"Oh, that's why she stormed past."
The Muslim woman hitches at her groin. You really couldn't see much of her face at all, though at least she doesn't wear a veil. Joseph presumably would not object to her wearing a veil if that took her fancy. Anarchists are stuck with the incongruous implications of their doctrine of non-interference.
He snickers; a friend returning from the Middle East a couple of years ago swore blind that any of the local women, in purdah, would fling her voluminous skirts over her head in shame and horror if an outsider chanced to see her naked face. Odd enough as a behavior, this performance had the ludicrous consequence in Western eyes of inverting the usual conventions of decency: for these heavily-skirted women were entirely innocent of underwear.
"This line is pretty rough, Brian. I missed that. Perhaps you should try dialing again."
"The line's okay, Ray, I got distracted. What are we going to do about Joseph?"
"Look, Marj and I are supposed to be having a holiday. We're a thousand kilometers away from the scene of the accident. Ring Mike Murphy, he's an authority on misery."
"Don't be a shit, Ray. Never forget those memorable words of John Donne: 'Hell is other people.'"
"Oh Brian, Brian. This call must be costing the earth. Use the money to take Joe out to a lash-up dinner at the Flower Drum. He likes Chinese."
"Are you mad? I'm not paying for this call, it's on the PMG." Postmaster General, Brian mused. There was a 19th century phrase to daunt and ravage the soul.
"Telecom, Brian. I'll have to ring off, you're making me a party to an act of theft against the people of this nation. Donne didn't say that, you've turned it right around. John Donne said, 'Hell is the same people.'"
A bus roars past. The pedestrian traffic is picking up. Scowling, the Muslim woman pushes her face up against the side of the booth, rapping on the pane with a twenty cent piece. This is rather surprising, given the passivity that Brian has supposed is their ingrained lot. He turns away, hitching his jeans.
"Look, I wouldn't be surprised if he kills himself."
"Oh, that'd be interesting," Finlay says, voice all hollow and dryly amused on the now-hollow line. "You could get Caro to write an epitaph for him in your next quipu."
"Don't be bloody macabre. Anyway, that's kwee-poo."
"You're a deeply ignorant man, Ray, and I see no future for you."
"Marj is menacing me with my swimming costume. We are here to enjoy the sun and the surf, Brian. If Joseph cuts his throat in our absence, get his executor to delay the funeral until our return. I would feel deeply guilty if we missed an important clever dick event of that magnitude."
"I sent him a copy of SMART GENES."
"That was bright. Really salient, Brian. Did you slip a razor blade in with it?"
"I thought it would cheer him up to see that Big Name hikes like Gareth Jones also have a rotten time."
"Let me assure you, Brian, from the profound truth that wells up in me as I stand here in my expensive holiday flat with the phone pressed against my ear, that misery does not love company. I'll see you at the next Nitting Circle, sport." Finlay hangs up.
"It's all yours, madam," Wagner informs the waiting Muslim woman. "In your case, I imagine the trick would be to work the earpiece in under your scarves." She stares at him with fear and loathing, and turns her back, banging his leg hard with a bag of fruit. It is a reaction to which Brian Wagner is no stranger.