A Minister for Propaganda Elf writes: The interweb-shaking response to the Grand Vizier’s (right) first post of his internet novel A GONZO NOIR (which amounted to a total of four comments, one of which was the Grand Vizier’s, and counting) has inspired the megalomaniac narcissist to post the second section, which comes below. If you’re one of the six billion or so people who hasn’t read the opening chapter – in which a character from an unpublished novel, a hospital porter called Karlsson, turns up in Declan Burke’s back garden and suggests that the best way to get the novel published is to blow up the hospital where he works – the first section comes here. Now read on …
A GONZO NOIR / Declan Burke
I tell Aileen I’m thinking about having another go at the Karlsson story.
‘Who?’ she says.
I tape Lily’s nappy in place, snap the buttons on her baby-gro. ‘Karlsson, the hospital porter.’
She frowns, remembering. ‘The guy who killed all the old people?’
‘I’m thinking of making it a comedy.’
‘Your father’s a space cadet,’ she tells Lily. Lily, warm and dry again, gurgles like a faulty faucet.
‘It’s just a redraft,’ I say. ‘Nothing major.’
‘I’ll redraft the divorce papers,’ Aileen says. She tickles Lily’s tummy. ‘But don’t worry, it’ll be nothing major.’
The cancer counsellor waves a rolled-up newspaper to shoo us away from the windows so his clients won’t have to watch us smoking. We are their bolted horses.
I try to make the connection between their cancer and my smoking but it can’t be done.
Some of my co-smokers drift away around the corner to where a breeze whips beneath the glass corridor connecting the hospital’s old and new buildings. There they huddle together, shivering. It’s a grey December day, sleet spattering the glass. The wind a cruel easterly.
The cancer counsellor raps on the window, jerks his head and thumb. I flip him the bird. He opens the window and leans out, beckons me across. I stroll over. When I’m close enough he mimes writing down the name on my plastic tag.
‘Let me get this straight,’ I say. ‘You’re miming a disciplinary action?’
This provokes him into taking out a pen and writing my name on the back of his hand. ‘You’re on report, Karlsson.’
‘Ingrate. If we didn’t smoke you’d be out of a job.’
His face reddens. He doesn’t like being reminded of his role as parasite. Not many do. ‘Between you and me,’ I say, ‘stress is the big killer.’
He’s fuming closing the window. I’m still not making the connection between my smoking and other people’s cancer. There’s a fuzzy blurring of divisions, okay, and carcinogens on either side of the wire. But I’m not finding the tangent point.
My line for today comes from Henry G. Strauss: I have every sympathy with the American who was so horrified by what he had read of the effects of smoking that he gave up reading.
‘That’s not very different from the first draft,’ Billy says. We’re out on the decking again. It’s another beautiful morning. I’m hoping the good weather holds because I’m not sure I want to invite him inside.
‘I think it works,’ I say. ‘I mean, you’re going to have to be at least a wee bit weird, otherwise no one’ll believe you when you decide to blow up the hospital.’
‘Fair go. But I don’t know if I should flip him the bird. It’s a bit … gratuitous, don’t you think? Blatant. If it was me I’d be a bit more subtle than that.’
‘What would you do?’
He thinks for a moment, closing his eyes picturing the scene.
‘Why don’t I stick out my tongue?’ he says. ‘Blow him a raspberry.’
‘You’re supposed to be 28,’ I say. ‘You want everyone to think you’re a retard?’
‘It worked for Ignatius Reilly.’
‘Look,’ I say, ‘it’s your story we’re rewriting. You need to accept that.’
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘But I’d rather blow a raspberry than flip someone the bird.’
‘I’ll take it under consideration,’ I say, making a note.
‘What’s next?’ he says.
‘You shave the skinny guy for his hernia operation.’
‘Roll it there, Collette.’
Today I shave a skinny guy, Tiernan, for a hernia procedure. The latex gloves are cold but he doesn’t seem to notice. I believe he’s trying to pretend another man isn’t fiddling around in his groin area.
Instead he tells me that a friend of his knows someone who died under anesthetic. Tiernan says he doesn’t want to die not knowing he’s dying. What he’s really saying is, he doesn’t want to die. What he’s really saying is, he has no one else to confide in except the guy who shaves other people’s genitals.
‘I do shaves,’ I say. ‘I push wheelchairs and lift the heavy stuff when the male nurses are busy. If you want a priest I’ll see what I can do. But it’s only a hernia operation. Catch yourself on.’
He’s shocked. I swab away the last of the cheap shaving foam. ‘You think you have problems?’ I say. ‘I have to look at dicks all day. Want to swap jobs?’
He works in a travel agency and spends his day emailing pornography to friends who pretend to appreciate what he understands to be irony.
‘You don’t want to die?’ I say. ‘Then do something. If you do something you won’t mind dying so much. Paint a picture. Have a kid. Then let it go. Dying isn’t so different from letting go.’
But he isn’t listening. He’s back thinking about this guy his friend knew, the one who died without knowing he was dying. I get a bang out of that. If there’s one thing dead people know it’s that they’re dead. If it’s anything like the way the living know they’re alive it won’t be such a big deal.
He watches me peel off the latex gloves.
‘Pay attention,’ I say. ‘You might need to draw on this performance some day. You’d be surprised at how many people learn to live without dignity. Statistically speaking, you’ve every chance of becoming one of those people.’
The matron arrives. I wonder if they teach bustling at Matron School. She throws back the kid’s robe. Matrons don’t usually check on hernia shaves but I shaved the wrong side a couple of weeks back.
‘How are you feeling, Mr Tiernan?’ she says. She says this so we can both pretend she isn’t checking my work.
‘I’m parched for a drink,’ the guy says.
‘It won’t be long now,’ she says. ‘It’ll soon be over.’
She speaks without looking in my direction. ‘Karlsson, I’d like you to take Mr Tiernan down to theatre at three forty-five.’
‘Let’s hope something funny happens on the way,’ I say. But she’s not listening.
He lounges back in the chair, tapping his lower lip with the butt of a pencil.
‘You’re still calling me Karlsson,’ he says.
‘Technically speaking,’ I say, ‘it’s the other characters who call you Karlsson.’
‘So have them call me Billy.’
‘I could do that, yeah. Except if you become Billy you’re not Karlsson anymore.’
‘I’m not Karlsson anymore.’
‘Not to me, or you. But if other characters start calling you Billy they’ll expect to see someone who looks like Billy. And I’d have to go through the whole damn thing changing your appearance every time its mentioned. Your hair, your eyes, your nose, the way you walk …’
‘Are we doing this,’ he says, ‘or are we doing this?’
‘Hey,’ I say, ‘no disrespect, but I’m doing you a favour here. Okay? Harcourt are waiting on The Big O sequel, they’re expecting it in October. So that’s my priority. If I can do your story as well, then great. But if we’re going to get it done, we can’t be farting around worrying about every tiny detail.
‘What you need to do,’ I say, ‘is think of yourself as an actor. Yeah? Make like the story’s a Mike Leigh movie, or one of those Dogma flicks, and you’re contributing to Karlsson as he goes along, inventing dialogue for him, little tics and quirks. How’s that sound?’
He takes a while to consider that.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘I’ll give it a whirl.’
‘Listen,’ I say, ‘I’m thinking of leaving out the Pope-Camus stuff.’
‘What Pope-Camus stuff?’
‘The goalkeepers bit.’
He shakes his head. ‘I forget that one,’ he says. ‘What’d I say there?’
Albert Camus and Pope John Paul II were both goalkeepers in their youth. I like to imagine them at either end of a stadium punting the ball back and forth while hooligans riot on the terraces.
As former goalies Camus and Pope John Paul II may or may not have sniggered knowingly when they read about James Joyce’s ambition to be both keeper and crucifier of his nation’s conscience.
They had this much in common once: both were a safe pair of hands under a high cross.
I was born. Later I learned to read, then write. Since then it’s been mostly books. Books and masturbation.
Writing and masturbation have in common temporary relief and the illusion of achievement. Many great writers have been avid onanists, and many avid onanists have been great writers. Often the only difference, as a point of refinement, is whether the wanking or writing comes first.
Me, I write some, I tug some, I go to bed. Only a barbarian would wank first, then write.
My line for today comes from the Danish novelist, Isak Dinesen: I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.
‘Y’know, I don’t think I should want to be a writer,’ he says. ‘I can see why you had it in there, to suggest Karlsson has some kind of depth. But now …’
‘You’ve changed your mind now you’ve met me.’
I’m joking but he nods. ‘What I’m thinking,’ he says, ‘is that Karlsson wanting to be a writer, to be creative, that’ll clash with him wanting to blow up the hospital.’
‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,’ I say.
‘Hmmmm,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure, if we want people to like me, that I should be throwing out nihilist sound-bites. All that Year Zero stuff doesn’t play too well in the ’burbs.’
‘How about this?’ I say. ‘You want to be a writer at the start except all you get are rejection letters. Then you get sour and decide to blow up the hospital.’
‘Too narcissistic,’ he says. ‘Only a writer could be that self-absorbed.’
‘Blowing up a hospital – that’s not narcissistic?’
‘It’s an attention-grabber, sure. But you’re the one who left me so’s I need to do something drastic to get out of this limbo.’
‘Leave me out of it. The hospital’s your idea.’
‘I didn’t start out like this, man. If you’d have asked me way back when, I’d have told you my dream was to skipper a charter yacht in the Greek islands.’
‘Funnily enough, it never occurred to me ask a character what his dream might be.’
‘Yeah, and maybe that’s why you’re still trying to cram your writing time into two hours a day.’
‘Yeah,’ I mimic his sarcastic tone, ‘and maybe we should forget the whole thing so’s I can get back to actually enjoying what I write.’
‘Touché,’ he says, deadpan. He gets up. ‘Let’s take a break,’ he says. ‘We’re obviously not going to get anything constructive done today.’ He takes one of my cigarettes, lights up. ‘One more thing,’ he says, exhaling. ‘You can’t go threatening to pull the plug. You’re either doing this or you’re not, and if you’re not fully committed it isn’t going to work. The start should be the easy bit. If you’re finding it hard going now, it’ll be a nightmare when we get into the endgame.’
He’s right, but somehow apologising feels like a step too far.
‘Listen,’ I say, ‘I won’t be here tomorrow. We’re taking Lily down home to Sligo for a few days to see her grandparents.’
‘Sound,’ he says. ‘Want to meet up Saturday night, have a pint?’
‘Cheers, but no. We’ve a family dinner arranged.’
‘Grand. See you Monday so.’
Aileen is standing at the kitchen window with Lily humped over her shoulder patting the little girl’s back to bring up wind. I hunch down to meet Lily’s gaze but she’s glassy-eyed, blissed out after a long feed.
‘Y’know,’ Aileen says, ‘it’s just as well no one can see into the back garden. I’d hate for anyone to think my husband was a mentaller who needs to put in a couple of hours talking to his characters to get set up for the day.’
‘Want me to take her?’
‘Good timing.’ She hands Lily across, sniffing her as she goes. ‘I think she has nappy issues. And change her baby-gro, will you? I’m meeting the girls in Dundrum for lunch. Put her little kimono outfit on.’
‘The white one?’
‘No, the pink one. She’s cute in pink.’
‘Hey, Boopy-Doop,’ I say, rubbing Lily’s back. She burps up a little creamy sick that dribbles down onto my shoulder. ‘That’s my girl,’ I say.
I met Cassie through a lonely hearts column. What I liked about her advertisement was that she required asoh. Most people specify a good sense of humour but Cassie wasn’t fussed. Laughs are laughs, she said.
Most people say they are first attracted by a sense of humour, the implication being that physical appearance is of secondary importance because beauty is ephemeral. The assumption here is that a sense of humour cannot age, that humour is immune to wrinkles, withering or contracting a tumour. People presume the things they cannot see – hope, oxygen, God – do not change, grow old or die.
A sense of humour is like everything else: it serves a particular purpose and then converts into a new form of energy. The trick is to be fluid enough to go with the flow and deal with each new manifestation on its own merits.
‘You might want to scrap the next bit,’ I say. ‘It’s an excerpt from that novel you were supposed to be writing.’
‘What’s it like?’ he says.
‘Colour me intrigued. Have on, MacDuff.’
Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)
Cassie, my elbows skate in ungainly loops across the cheap varnish of this plywood desk as I write to unremember. The flat white sponge soaks up the words. Cassie, bury me in a cheaply varnished plywood coffin. Then look beyond the past. Train your eyes to see beyond the horizon of what we used to know all the way back to where our future ends.
Cassie, we should have danced together, once at least, but you stumbled over words like ‘imaginings’.
Did I hate you really? Did I choose you for the exaggeration of your form, for the overflow that allowed me wallow in the cosy warmth of incestuous oblivion? Were you really the mother I never had? Withdrawal was always the sweetest relief as I slid out and away to limply drift back to the world.
Cassie, why did I want you only when you were lost?
‘Dump it,’ he says.
‘All that incest stuff, Jesus …’
‘I already said, it’s gone.’
‘You get your first official warning.’
The old new orders were, no smoking inside the hospital. The new new orders are, no smoking on hospital grounds. So the cancer counsellor makes an official complaint. If he had made a verbal complaint I’d have received a verbal warning. An official written complaint results in an official written warning from my supervisor. My supervisor tells me this as he hands over the written warning.
‘What about the rain forests?’ I say. ‘Don’t cut down trees for the sake of an official complaint, man. If you have to make an official complaint send me an email, or text it. Or recycle. Just send out the written warning on the back of the last one.’
‘There’s procedures,’ he says. He wears a buttoned-up stripy shirt under a v-necked sweater, his hair greasy where it straggles over his collar.
‘Get a haircut,’ I say, ‘you look like a sleazy monk. Smarten up, unbutton that top button. Being married is no excuse.’
I do not say this. What I say is, ‘How about the far end of the overflow car park, the one the cheap bastards use when they don’t want to pay for parking in town?’
‘Karlsson, there’s no smoking anywhere on hospital grounds.’
‘You can’t even see the hospital from down there.’
‘It’s the rule.’
‘Look, I can see the logic of no smoking in the hospital but ––’
‘Karlsson, if I catch you smoking anywhere on hospital grounds, you’re fired.’
‘Okay. So when do we stop the consultants drinking anywhere on hospital grounds? Like, when do we start testing the surgeons’ coffee-flasks when they drive up in the morning?’
‘It’s for your own good,’ he says. ‘You’ll live longer.’
The new ban has nothing to do with my health and everything to do with his. He has a sickness that requires orders to be obeyed. Who am I hurting by smoking in the overflow car park? I’m hurting me, sure, but I’m killing him.
The priests understand that if you can tell people how to have sex you can tell them to do anything.
‘If you can tell someone how they should kill themselves,’ I say, ‘you can tell them to do anything. You’re just hanging around waiting for someone to tell you which window to jump out of.’
I do not say this.
‘You’ve had your warning,’ he says.
‘Can I super-size that, with extra threat?’
But he’s not listening. My line for today comes courtesy of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE): No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.
‘We should probably kill the Aristotle bit,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if people respond all that well to insanity. And the foul language, that should go too.’
‘No lunacy,’ I say, making the appropriate notes, ‘and no swearing. Anything else?’
‘Just one thing.’ He reaches into his backpack and comes up with a sheet of paper. ‘I took a stab at this last night. Something I remembered about Cassie. Want to try it?’
‘Sure, why not?’
He makes to hand the page across.
‘No,’ I say, ‘it’s your stuff, you read it.’
‘I don’t have a reading voice,’ he says.
‘You want to be more real, don’t you? More authentic.’
He crosses his eyes, mocking himself, then grins. ‘Okay,’ he says.
Sometimes Cassie sings in her sleep. The words are incomprehensible, the melody non-existent. There are moans, yelps and high-pitched squeals. None of these make sense in themselves. Nor do they make any more sense when heard in sequence. If a straight line exists between the static of the cosmos and a Mozart requiem, between meaningless hiss and perfect design, then Cassie belongs in a choir of whales.
She might not sing for two months, then sing three times in one week. It might last for five seconds or minutes at a time. Why?
I have recorded her singing without asking permission. An unforgivable invasion. Except Cassie doesn’t know that she sings. If I tell her, she might never sing again. What then?
I’ve slowed the tape down, speeded it up, played it in reverse. None of the manipulations yield any semblance of meaning. So far I have eliminated the following possibilities: hymns; pop songs; TV theme tunes; advertising jingles; nursery rhymes.
All I know is that her singing is not designed to be heard. She is not aware she is singing. It is not even the unselfconscious cries of a baby, because a baby is at least aware that it is crying, and that its inarticulate bawling signifies hunger, wet or pain.
I wait in darkness for Cassie to sing. In the there and then of my waiting occurs the tangent point where I intersect with the human race, that unique breed aiming out along an arc designed to contradict nature’s irrefutable logic.
Mostly, though, she sleeps. Usually I’ll watch her but not for long. There are few things as boring as a sleeping woman.
‘Well?’ he says.
‘You got the tone right,’ I say. ‘And I like the way you’ve made yourself sound like a tender pervert.’
‘You don’t mind?’ he says. ‘Me chipping in now and again, I mean.’
‘Not in the slightest. The more you write, the less I have to do.’
‘Hey,’ he says, the grin beginning again, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if I ended up writing about how I don’t want to be a writer?’
‘Hilarious,’ I say, getting up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I have a noon deadline. A theatre review for the Sunday Times.’
‘Unless you feel like writing that for me too.’
He shrugs. ‘How hard could it be?’ he says.
This morning a thick mist rolls down out of the hills. A faint but pervasive drizzle. ‘It’d go through you without a bounce,’ as my father’d say.
I stand at the upstairs window sipping my coffee and watch Billy read back over something he has written, now and again glancing up at the house.
Around eight-thirty he leaves, slouching away down the gravel path to the back gate, shoulders hunched against the drizzle.
Something in the way he walks makes me realise that the extra three inches of height come from lifts he’s had put into his shoes.
He hasn’t even had a coffee. It was my turn.
The hospital’s chain of command works something like this:
On the bottom of the pile comes the porter. Above the porter come his supervisor, the nurses, the ward sisters and matrons; interns, consultants and specialists; financial consultants, the Board of Directors, and God.
All these wondrous creatures, apart from God, need to defecate. Sooner or later, the works gum up. Everyone waits until the porter hoses out the Augean edifice. Then it all starts again.
I like to call this process ‘Tuesday’.
Everyone has a thing about Mondays but Mondays do their best.
Tuesdays are evil.
Tuesday is Monday’s Mr Hyde, lurking in the shadows and twirling its luxuriant moustache. Tuesdays take Friday 13ths out into the car park and set their feet on fire just to see the fuckers dance. If Tuesday was a continent it would be Africa: disowned, degraded and mean as hell. Tuesdays are in a perpetual state of incipient rebellion. I can feel it. Tuesdays want to be Saturday nights and a few pancakes once a year aren’t going to keep them sweet forever. When it all blows up in your face don’t say you weren’t warned.
We have chained Tuesdays too tightly, allowed them no time off. We have taken no notice of Tuesday’s concerns over working conditions. Tuesday is Samson, blinded and furious, his hair growing back by imperceptible degrees.
You have been warned.
The union rep is on the phone, so it must be Tuesday.
‘You got another official warning, Karlsson,’ he says, ‘and one member’s shoddy work practices reflect badly on the entire union. You need to take that on board because we’re all in this together. If enough people share the load it doesn’t weigh anything. You know the cleaning contracts are up for review next month.’
‘Aren’t you supposed to be on my side?’ I say. ‘I’m being fucked up the ass, metaphorically speaking. What’s the protocol for shouldering a metaphorical poke in the wazoo?’
‘Rules are rules,’ he says.
‘There’s such a thing as a bad law,’ I say. ‘Not only is the law an ass, it must be seen to be an ass.’
But it’s Tuesday and he’s not listening. ‘One more infraction and you’re suspended,’ he says. ‘One more infraction and I’m fired. Where’s the point in suspending me after I’m fired?’
‘Consider yourself disciplined,’ he says. ‘You’ll be receiving official confirmation within three working days.’
‘Can I wait until the official confirmation arrives before considering myself disciplined? I have issues with imaginary manifestations of authority.’
I say, ‘I’m an atheist, send a plague of locusts.’
But it’s Tuesday. He’s not listening.
‘Again with the foul language,’ he says.
‘And there’s maybe a little too much Tuesday stuff. But,’ he adds, ‘that’s just a suggestion. You’re the writer here.’
‘No, you might have a point. I’ll take a look at it.’
‘Okay. What’s next?’
‘Another excerpt from your novel.’
‘I thought we were dumping all that.’
‘We dumped the last one, sure. But I only realised afterwards that the excerpts were intended as your love letters to Cassie.’
‘What do you want to do?’
He shrugs. ‘Give it a whirl.’
Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)
As a young man in Vienna, Hitler failed to woo a Jew.
A bullet tore his sleeve as he charged across No Man’s Land.
Cassie, six inches could have saved the Six Million.
Cassie, they say Hitler once enjoyed the company of Jews.
How then can they speak so blithely of fate, destiny and procreative sex? Damn the future, Cassie; dam it up. Give me handjobs, blowjobs and anal sex. Offer me your armpits, you wanton fuckers. Let us lacerate the sides of virgins with gaping wounds and fuck so hard we shake God from His heaven. Let us feast on snot, blood, pus and sperm; only save your tears for vinegar, to serve to martyrs who thirst.
© Declan Burke, 2008
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.