Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bird Out of Space and Time (Part 5).

After the chaos of the storms, there came a calmness, but no clarity.  I remember that February as a supremely funereal month, with everything shrouded in a deep, milky whiteness.  Think of the effects of clear blue sky and undiluted sunlight on the earth.  The colour in the sky is everywhere absorbed on earth.  Everything is brighter, clearer, more vivid, detailed, and more ineffably itself.  Under the auspices of sunlight, operating on the senses like a drug, the ordinary can become an epiphany, for this sunlight, just as it goes into the pores, browning and brightening the skin, goes also into the mind, making it feel as though it has awoken from a long, dim sleep, rekindling the old passions, and resuming a sense of life’s quest, however opaque its ultimate object.  We were not in that time of renewal yet, however, and winter, exhausted from its raging against the light, still clung on, like an old man holding fast, but with an increasingly tenuous grip, to an idea while he drifted off into sleep, the picture in his mind losing its context and fading, coming in and out of focus with the rise and fall of his breath.  The whole world, or so it appeared to me, was that picture, its edges softened by sleep, its past and future diffused in a haze of forgetfulness, until it was only a blanched present, a tiny inlet bordered all around by oblivion.

Just as sunlight has its characteristic effect of making the world more substantial and alert, so its prolonged diffusion makes the world sleepy and disengaged, imparting to it the feeling of those mornings, or days, or sometimes weeks, where the gulf between waking and sleeping are never wholly crossed, and your daylight chores call to you from across a great distance, more soothing than alarming, like the low hum of a foghorn from shorelines so spectral they might not exist at all.  Those February skies never stinted in the whiteness of their backdrop, the monotony broken only by little patches of grey that rolled sluggishly across the sky, like the last fleeing wisps of smoke from a drowned fire.  The days, too, rolled along, each one having the sense of never fully dressing, of just pottering around in pyjamas and dressing gown, reading the headlines but barely scanning the text beneath.  This was not simply my own private mind-set, but a general sense of suspension and hibernation.  The weekdays all had that lazy, introspective ambience palpable of a Sunday: the hush, the sense of everywhere closed, the absence of things to do but ruminate on the sameness of how things stand relative to how they how they stood last week, the unspoken sorrow of those without families, drawn as they are to seek whatever embers of Saturday might still burn in the public houses.  We were all bidding our time, waiting to be re-awoken in spring.
The whiteness of those days was nowhere more apparent than in the main square of the Quarter, where the mood of the great glass towers was always at the whim of the surrounding ambient light.  I had anticipated that the view from my balcony would provide a cornucopia for the voyeur, now that the gales had subsided.  Instead, I found myself surveying a scene of eerie stillness.  Signs of life were present on the other decks – tables and chairs, potted and hanging plants, clotheshorses, bicycles, little ornaments and baubles that sought to offset the rigid and clinical geometry of the high rise – but it was as though their owners, having pledged those modest keepsakes of human habitation, then promptly conceded defeat, and left the rectilinear terrain to its preferred ambience of cool emptiness.  I saw nobody else on the balconies that month.  Lights went on and off, of course, and clothes were left out to dry – but the human hands which carried out those mundane activities remained invisible.  It reminded me of the Fireplace Channel Conundrum. 

When I was a student, people were having their first experience of the massive proliferation of television channels which became available with the advent of the satellite dish.  Nothing epitomized the dazzlingly indulgent scope of the satellite epoch better than the fireplace channel.  It was a channel – way out in the further reaches of the Sprawl, nobody could ever quite remember what number – which showed an uninterrupted close-up of logs burning on a warm, relaxing fireplace.  Sometimes it had a yuppie satori New Age score piped over it, but most of the time the soundtrack was just the soft hiss and crackle of the fire.  This, of course, was long before the days of Noosfeed, so the satellite channels were a very significant cultural outlet in many student households – especially those where marihuana was smoked in any reasonable quantity.  This particular building that I was living in was one of those weird old family houses in which not a stick of furniture or lick of nausea-deco wallpaper had been altered since the ‘70s.   The living room was a long, narrow little space, like a waiting room.   We spent many dimly-lit hours there, seated on faded, aromatic old armchairs and couches, smoking weed and plugging ourselves into the entertainment multiverse of the Sprawl.
A Sprawl session usually began in the early evening, with the whole household sharing a smoke before going out on the town.  One or two, however, would always remain behind – one who’d probably intended to go out, but inadvertently lost the will to become vertical much less mobile, and another who was of that mystical type which scorned the social sphere altogether, favouring from the outset the type of mental journeying facilitated by marihuana and the remote control, then known affectionately as the “Gadget”, the “Machine”, the “Thing”, or almost any moniker excluding that of the “Remote Control” itself, as though its magical efficacy would vanish forever once invoked by its True Name.

Having first drank a few beers and chatted for a while, the two stragglers would eventually reach a stage of marihuana intoxication characterised by a heightened intensity of immediate perception, coupled with severely impaired short-time memory, this condition signalling the optimum time to begin channel hopping.  For the next few hours, they eased themselves into the shifting topography of the Sprawl, beginning in the Old World of what were then aptly labelled the “terrestrial channels”, weekend chat-shows so familiar and mundane they might as well have been beamed directly from the next room, nightly news parochial enough to be happening outside their kitchen window, gradually lifting off into the stratosphere, towards the edge of the ecliptic, where the archetypal forms of New World constellations swam past them in dizzying profusion, pioneering American chat-shows that mixed real-life voyeurism with ambiguous Wrestlemania spectacle, television judges, psychologists, shamans, gynaecologists, bounty-hunters, cops, all plying their professions on a public that might have been real people or actors playing real people, infomercial channels where actors shilled exercise equipment and actors playing real people shilled kitchen appliances that appealed to the miraculous New Physics of the Cyclonic Cutting Zone (not, contrary to the name, a sci-fi torture chamber), out further again, through a wormhole that fractured near and far, past and present, into an atemporal labyrinth, which opened here in an old kung fu movie, whose extraterrestrial dubbing and intergalactic punch-impact sound effects were a perennial joy to the stoned Sprawler, there into an 80s soft-core porn fantasia, whose impressionistic lighting and showy editing rendered its erotic content abstract and piecemeal, taking sideways turns into a portentous documentary detailing the professional and emotional upheavals of the musician and performer Meatloaf, and always, by some mysterious serendipity, landing at precisely the right moment in the midst of an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, which, if luck held out even further, might turn out to be Mirror, Mirror, much beloved by Sprawlers for its evil, bearded double of Spock, or The Way to Eden, similarly cherished for its Space Hippie guest stars.

Although on the surface a lethargic and untaxing activity, this type of television viewing required the cultivation of certain sensitivities and instincts.  When channel-hopping, it was important to know when to stop at a particular channel, and when to move on again; when to comment on some bizarre aspect of the viewing experience, and when to remain silent; when you had no choice but to go out to the kitchen to make toast, or when a few extra minutes might have caused your partner to crack, and volunteer to do the same.  The cultivation of these instincts was aided by the fact, widely known but rarely discussed out in the open, that stoned satellite viewers generally developed a kind of close psychic rapport, sometimes suspected to extend into the circuitry of the television, or perhaps even out as far as the electromagnetic ether itself, where packets of information hovered like spirits of the departed, seeking proper mediums and suitably rapt audiences.  In hindsight, it is possible to trace a definite lineage between satellite Sprawling, and the internet surfing which would come largely to replace it.  Both involved trawling a non-linear, randomized network, and both emphasized a realignment of the mind towards modes of thinking which were fragmentary and episodic.  Both seemed to place a particular currency in experiences which prompted either audible hilarity, or a kind of sheer befuddlement in the face of the inexplicable, bizarre, or utterly randomoid.  Sprawlers, like acid trippers, often completely forgot earlier peak moments of a session, until they eventually returned as dreamlike flashbacks, prompting astonishment, and sometimes considerable doubt as to the veracity of the memory.  (A couple of us retain the conviction to this day that we once hit on a movie which turned out to be a cross-over between the Elvis Presley Blue Hawaii cycle, and the Toho Company Godzilla franchise, although no evidence of its existence ever emerged in subsequent researches.)

Later on in the night, the others came back from bars and nightclubs, and some awareness of the world outside the living room was briefly and tenuously re-established, but it wasn’t long until the newcomers had smoked themselves into the Sprawl mind-meld.  It was usually during these latter stages of the session, with the torch of the remote passed on to fresh hands, that we would sooner or later hit on the fireplace channel.  It seemed at the time as though we spent hours watching those logs burn, but in reality, it was probably never more than ten or fifteen minutes at a turn.  The fireplace channel could be very soothing, or more than a little sinister, depending on your mood.  It was extremely hypnotic as long as the New Age music wasn’t playing, and with the stoner’s capacity for synaesthete blurring of categories, it was often easy to lull yourself into the illusion that you were looking at a real fire, to begin to feel actual warmth coming from it.  (We’d all heard the cautionary tale of a particularly far gone Sprawler who’d actually attempted to stoke the fire with a poker, causing the destruction of the television set, and an ontological melt-down from which that household had yet to recover.)  Our running trip with the fireplace was to ruminate on the central mystery, or Conundrum, of the channel: the fire never seemed to go out, nor was anybody ever witnessed adding new logs to it.  Clearly, some law of thermodynamics was being violated here.  We’d watch the fireplace channel for long (in Sprawl terms) stretches, trying to catch out the Hidden Hand that Changed the Logs, until we eventually tired of the wheeze, and moved on in search of a Magnum, P.I. rerun or Toho monster brawl.  “We’ll catch him the next time,” somebody would say.  However, one of our flatmates, an idealistic and slightly fragile young man called Simon, started to become obsessed with the fireplace channel.

“Seriously, though, how is it that the fire never dies down?” he’d say.  “It stays the same strength, all the time.  Somebody has to change the logs.  I don’t know how they do it, but somebody has to change the logs.”

We tried to explain to him that the footage was surely playing on some kind of edited loop, but, whether due to his idealistic nature, or some profound ignorance of the capacity of editing to trick the eye, he refused to accept this.

“Who makes the channel, anyway?” he continued.  “How is it funded?  There are no ad breaks.  No ad breaks!  How does a television channel survive without advertising revenue?  What function does it serve?  Television serves just two functions: advertising and propaganda.  Well, the fireplace channel doesn’t sell anything, so it must serve an exclusively propagandist function.  But what message could it possibly have?  What message is being subliminally communicated to us by this smouldering fireplace?  What is its worldview?”

This was a side to Simon, normally sedate and even a little dull, which we hadn’t seen before.   It was obvious that he was getting a little too preoccupied with the Fireplace Channel Conundrum, and some of us started to mutter that perhaps weed just didn’t wasn’t his thing.  But he seemed to cool off on the subject for a while, so we didn’t give it too much further thought.  That was until this weekend came around when everybody happened to be going home – everybody except Simon.  Before we all left, we found him in the living room, preparing for an epic and unconventional Sprawl session.  The ground was strewn with bags of potato crisps, in which the whole bestiary of the low-budget snack world was represented: Monster Munch, Meanies, Hot Lips, Banshee Bones, even (ominously) some jumbo-sized Space Raiders, a relatively obscure, pickled onion-flavoured corn snack whose packaging featured a quite accurate rendering of the feared Zeta Reticulan Grey alien.  He also had a bag of weed, and his plan was to watch the fireplace channel continuously, until such time as he finally saw the Hidden Hand that Changes the Logs.  Obviously, this was a very unhealthy course of action to undertake, and we really should have attempted some kind of intervention at that point.  But – whether due a youthful inability to comprehend the gravity of the situation, or some streak of that malicious tendency which prompts some dopers to feed LSD to dogs and cats – we left him to chase down our buses, and go about our weekends.

We returned, and were more than a little relieved, to find Simon apparently none the worse for wear.  There was an excited gleam in his eye, and a certain air of quiet accomplishment, almost smugness, in his manner, but other than that, he seemed no different than before.  We quizzed him about the fireplace marathon, and found him oddly reticent on the subject.  Eventually, he told us that he had finally experienced a breakthrough after twelve straight hours.  He had seen the Hidden Hand, and alluded darkly to more besides, but refused, no matter how we prodded him, to elaborate any further.  It was a subject which we were happy to let drop.  In the weeks that followed, it became increasingly apparent that Simon simply wasn’t the same after that weekend.  He had become distant, disengaged from life, secretive.  He started to read voraciously, in a variety of esoteric and seemingly unrelated disciplines, and when he watched television, it was with a certain specialized, academic focus.  You’d notice him taking frequent mental notes, or sometimes nodding sagely to himself, as though some abstract thesis had been confirmed by an incidental detail on the screen.  The expression “away with the fairies” is much abused today as a synonym for the mildest levels of distraction from consensus reality, but must owe its origins to a very specific phenomenon in our agrarian and animistic past, whereby a person, having met some experience out in the fields or crossroads of night, was henceforth only a physical refugee in our world, and a mental denizen of that other world which the rest of us cannot see.  This was an apt description for what had happened to Simon, except that his experience had occurred amid signals bouncing down from the edge of space, at the crossroad between standard channels, in the white noise interstices that wind their way like an adverse Qlippoth into the pathways between proscribed signals.  In subsequent Sprawl sessions, whenever Simon held the remote, eerie and sometimes prophetic synchronistic linkages abounded in the segues from one channel to the next.

After moving out of the house at the end of that college semester, I lost track of Simon for a few years.  Much later on, when I had developed a penchant for aimless street rambling, I started to bump into him from time to time.  In the ensuing years, he’d dropped out of the regular flow of life altogether.  He didn’t work, and lived in a tiny bedsit, whose tasteless and decrepit furnishing suggested a compressed version of our narrow old living room – only the television was gone, replaced by a laptop.  I didn’t think he had too many friends, and imagined him striking up conversations with strangers outside cafes, another one of those eccentrics who introduce themselves with some idle chit-chat about the weather, before lurching abruptly into a geopolitical manifesto of apparently infinite scope and duration.  Nevertheless, he seemed quite content, in his own way.  I went back to his flat occasionally, to smoke some dope.  He devoted most of his time – and most of the limited space offered by the bedsit – to the study of labyrinthine conspiracy theories.  He seemed particularly enamoured of the notion that global events were controlled by a cadre of secret societies, whose guiding hand was made apparent in the recurrence of certain qabalistically significant numbers and images in newspaper headlines and artefacts of the popular culture.  He had compiled detailed analyses of what he called “cluster events” – terrorist attacks, mass shootings, plane crashes, natural disasters, NASA press announcements – and how they corresponded with Hollywood blockbusters, music videos, awards ceremony set-pieces, and trending topics on Noosfeed.  His underlying thesis was that reality was an infinitely malleable mathematical construct, and could be manipulated by feeding certain numerical and archetypal patterns into the collective psyche, like a malicious computer code.

“Have you ever wondered why Frazer’s Golden Bough remained so popular and influential in the 20th century, even to the present day?” he asked me once, “A turgid, almost unreadably prolix compendium of unsupported, outdated armchair anthropology?  It’s because its readers knew intuitively what Frazier sought to suppress – that the modern global village is exactly the same as its ancestral precursor – the same indivisible web of sympathies and correspondences, the same dense network of conscious and unconscious sorceries, the same dim shapes weaving destiny in the hidden places of fields and forests, weaving destiny from a thread of placations, sacrifices, and ancient curses -  the irony of Frazer was that his book was infused with the energies of the very magic he sought to consign into history, and offered its readers a glimpse at the hidden web of intentional and symbolic forces which underscore the façade of the modern world - ”

It was difficult to navigate the cramped space of the bedsit without knocking over a book-pile or two.  I was gathering books from the floor one evening when a familiar cover gave me a start: Pendleton’s Circuitous Path.  It seemed that Simon, too, was much preoccupied with the enigmatic motif of the bird out of space and time.  The bird, according to his researches, was an ambiguous symbol of immemorial provenance, whose appearance sometimes denoted regeneration, and sometimes damnation.  Its ancient analogues included the Melek Taus, or Peacock Angel, of the Yazidi religion, the phoenix of Greek mythology, and the Firebird of Slavic folklore, whose peacock-like plumage burned with the effulgence of a bonfire always on the cusp of waning.  In more recent times, Simon found an echo of the archetype in the eponymous symbol of happiness sought by Mytyl and Tyltyl in Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 play The Blue Bird; he believed that certain verses of Crowley’s abhorred Book of the Law referred elliptically to the bird out of space and time; and that the “rough beast” of Yeats’ apocalyptic Second Coming was another oblique reference.

“It’s strange,” Simon noted, “that all these echoes cluster around the early part of the twentieth century.  First Crowley channelling the Book of the Law in Egypt in ’04.....then Pendleton’s European travels in ’05 forming the basis of The Circuitous Path…..Maeterlinck, operating in the same Symbolist milieu as Pendleton, writing The Blue Bird in ’08…..Yeats, a few years later, working from the same Golden Dawn tradition as Crowley, producing visionary poetry which is enthralled by the idea of gyres, by the circuitous turning of vast wheels of time, kalpas, yugas, aeons….ideas which are pretty similar, if you think about it, to the sense of eternal recurrence which seemed to drive poor Pendleton to distraction in the Paimio Sanatorium…..”

At this point, Simon veered off into a conspiranoid digression regarding the mythical lost album of Charles Manson:
“It’s fairly common knowledge that Charles Manson desperately wanted to be a rock star, right?  Also that, in order to further this ambition, he somehow managed to insinuate himself into the company of record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.  Actually, the connections between the Manson Family and LA music scene went much deeper than this - deeper, perhaps, than we will ever know.  The sheer preponderance of weird coincidences swirling around the case – the unshakeable sense that each player in the drama was somehow intimately and secretly connected with every other – has led some to speculate that the Manson murders were merely the visible manifestation of some vaster SATANOID conspiracy which engulfed the entertainment world during the Age of Aquarius.  Anyway, to say on the subject at hand….”  

“….Wilson arranged for Manson and his entourage to spend a couple of days recording in L.A.’s prestigious Gold Star Studios.  This was the same studio where a young Phil Spector had developed – or, as some vinyl Platonists insist, discovered – the Wall of Sound.  The Manson sessions were first commercially released in 1970 as Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, and have been in the public domain ever since.  This much is known.  However, it has been persistently rumoured that another recording session took place in Brian Wilson’s home studio.  The fruits of this session were said to embody a ‘vibe which was too heavy and evil for this world to bear’, and the tapes were apparently destroyed.  Or so the official story went.”

“However, unofficial, subterranean sources have always insisted that the master tapes of Manson’s lost album were never destroyed.  Around the period of the trial, they claim, the tapes were in the possession of Dennis Wilson.  He really wanted to destroy them, but just couldn’t do it.  Like many involved in the case at that time, he was caught in a tailspin of hyper-paranoia, frozen by the sense that all of his actions were somehow enmeshed in a nexus of black magic and dire, unexpected consequences.  So the story goes that he passed the tapes on to Terry Melcher, figuring he’d have the nerves to do what needed to be done.”

“Except Melcher also gets the FEAR – sheer, crippling, paranoiac terror.  What if Manson gets out, and comes looking for the tapes? Or sends some of his glassy-eyed jailbait militia out to collect them?  What if burning the tapes succeeds only in releasing their evil vibes, dispersing them into the ether until the L.A. smog itself becomes thick with contagious Mansonoid lunacy?  WHAT IF THAT WAS MANSON’S PLAN ALL ALONG?  Melcher knew there was only one person he could turn to - his mentor, and the man whom he credited with a greater affinity to the arcana of sound recording and black magic than any other living soul: Harold L. Zarkoff, better known in the music world as “Professor” Buzz Zarkoff.”

“Though largely unknown today, outside of the narrow subculture of Surf & Drag/Hot Rod music enthusiasts, Buzz Zarkoff made a big name for himself in the early 60s, arranging and producing hit records in the genre sometimes nicknamed the “death disk” or “splatter platter”, and later categorized as the teen tragedy song.  Zarkoff specialized in that particular song-cycle within the genre, best exemplified by Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve, Ray Patterson’s Tell Laura I Love Her, and the Shangri-Las’ anthemic Leader of the Pack, wherein pious teen devotion is thwarted by fatal vehicular misadventure.  Following the lead of Shangri-Las production visionary George “Shadow” Morton, Zarkoff incorporated elaborate vehicular sound effects into the mixes of his hormonal melodramas.  The actual provenance of these sound effects has been the subject of persistent rumour in the Surf & Drag subculture, many believing that Zarkoff employed a cadre of brylcreemed, speed-obsessed fatalists to cruise the Hollywood hills at night, often traversing certain stretches of Mulholland Drive reputed to be haunted by malevolent entities, with the intention of deliberately precipitating accidents, whose screeches and crashes a helmeted Zarkoff would record from the backseat, believing that the risks taken on their side balanced the karmic debt of injuries (and automotive repairs) on the other.  Whatever the truth of these rumours, the scream which climaxes the spoken-word bridge of Now She’ll Never Tell Me to Slow Down Again by Ricky Danube (of Ricky and the Rubes) still chills to this day.”

“Anyway, Melcher meets Zarkoff in a parking lot on Sunset, and explains his predicament.  ‘Don’t worry about it, Terry,’ Zarkoff reassures, ‘I know just exactly what to do with this.’  As it happened, he did know precisely what to do with the cursed recording.  Zarkoff’s plan was flawless.  He would first erase the Manson material from the tape, and then record a banishing ritual over it.  Next, in order to ensure that the negative vibes had been forever erased, he would drive out to Joshua Tree, find a certain “power spot” where he had frequently tripped on peyote, and bury the tape there.  Zarkoff knew that this was the right place to bury the tape because once, during a particularly lucid and revelatory part of his trip, a spirit guide appeared at his right ear, and whispered: “Whatever is buried here – whether good or evil – will bear no further fruit.”  With the benefit of hindsight, this was clearly higher-dimensional advice, designed to become useful in precisely this crisis.” 

“The plan then was flawless, fool-proof – but it never happened.  Zarkoff kept looking at the tapes – all ready to be erased, to be banished forever for the good of mankind – and some instinct took over.  Call it morbid curiosity, the imp of the perverse, whatever.  He starts to think to himself: I could listen to a few seconds of it, right?   A few seconds would satisfy my curiosity.  What harm could it do?  A song.  One song.  One song isn’t going to kill anybody, right?  So he procrastinates, spending a few hours every evening just looking at the tapes, his mind swinging like a pendulum between yin (It’s just a recording, for Christ’s sake, what harm can listening to it do?) and yang (Its evil vibes are worming their way into my brain as we speak, forcing me to play it!) until eventually, inevitably, he cracks, and plays the tapes - gazing, as it were, with his Third Ear open, into the Mansonoid abyss……”

“Six months later, Harold L. Zarkoff was found dead in his Whittier Drive home.  His house was a short distance away from the North Whittier Drive dead man’s curve, immortalized in the song of the same name by Jan and Dean, and just a few blocks away from the very spot where Jan Berry, by one of those peculiar quirks of destiny which is by no means innocent or coincidental, suffered a near fatal car crash himself - driving, as in the song, a Stingray.  Zarkoff’s cause of death was autoerotic asphyxiation, reputedly the result of a sex magick ritual – in which he was costumed as the Egyptian deity Osiris – gone wrong.”
“The significance of this to our story is that the lost Manson album was never destroyed.  After Zarkoff’s death, it fell into the hands of Clarence “Butch” Spiv, the saxophone player with Zarkoff’s hard-rocking Surf & Drag house-band The Bloody Pink Slips.  After “Butch” Spiv, it passed on to road-manager, groupie groomer, and general mid-level sleazoid Marty Ballinger.  And so it has travelled ever since, a morbid talisman in the tarnished underbelly of the L.A.  music scene, another illicit and extreme experience offered in a world of dreams gone awry and hedonism run rampant, from one owner to the next, from skid-row hotels to mansions in the hills, from the generation of hippie star children aging into cocaine gypsy-millionaires, to the era of yuppies and bouffant glam rockers, to the present, always being played in the early and weird hours of epic bacchanalias, in the too-bright and vivid hinterlands between ecstatic night and morning’s come down, played as a last resort when an immunity to amyl nitrate had been attained, and the desire to say out of it will court any madness, leaving a trail of bad luck, mysterious reversals of fortune, and death by hedonistic misadventure in its wake.”

“I was on this Noofeed forum recently, where an anonymous – apparently a former child-actor – claimed that he had seen the master-tapes of the lost Charles Manson album.  He said that he was at some glitzy, debauched weekender in a house in the Hollywood hills in the early 90s – Timothy Leary, River Phoenix, and some or all of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were also in attendance.  At some point, he and a handful of other revellers were exploring a recording studio in the house, and they found this really dusty old tape in a box, which was labelled Hymns to the Cosmic Bird Out of Space and Time, and just as they were about to play it, somebody rushed in and told them it was an old Charlie Manson recording which was supposed to be cursed.”
“You mean, you think Manson read The Circuitous Path?” I interjected.
“Yes, I think Manson must have read Pendleton, and associated the bird out of space and time with Paul McCarthy’s Blackbird on the White album: Blackbird fly, blackbird fly/ Into the light of the dark black night.”

My encounters with Simon always left me with mixed feelings.  Every time we met, our conversation started in relatively mundane and everyday territory, so each time I would begin to suspect that perhaps he’d finally left aside the thrall of his solitary obsessions, and set his mind to things more fruitful to the everyday existence.  I might have hoped for this outcome, owing to a lingering sense of guilt, a feeling that we should have looked out for him a little bit more when we were flatmates.  His conversation, however, would inevitably turn back to the exotic fringes of the possible, and the theme of all-pervasive occult conspiracy.  I never knew exactly how to feel about this.  I felt sorry, I suppose, for the lonely and spartan nature of his life, its sense of disconnection from the bustling world which the majority lived in.  And yet, at the same time, it was hard not to acknowledge that these subjects, at least on the surface of things, made him happy.  When he spoke about them, a look of conviction, even transportation, stole over him.  He assumed the quiet joy, the strange personal light, of a religious ecstatic.
As time wore on, and I began to have problems with work, and at home with Catherine, it sometimes occurred to me that perhaps to live as Simon did wasn’t really that bad.  At that time, I was beginning to suspect that simply to exist in the professional world, to provide for oneself some slight measure of luxury above bare necessity, required an extraordinary sacrifice of energy – a diminution of the energy to create, to be inspired, to be enraptured by the very fact of one’s existence.  Simon, for whatever he lacked, didn’t suffer those intrusions into his personal pursuits and interests.  There was, however, also something in his look of religious transportation which deeply unnerved me.  This world as he perceived it was the unholy text of a demiurge – a web of information whose careful unravelling raised him to a sensation of intimate connection with the hidden wellsprings of reality itself.  This was appealing to me, but there was also something frightening in that appeal – some intimation of the close proximity between total revelation and total madness, between gleaming godhead and annihilating vacuum.  When he became most animated in the explication of his ideas and theories, a light entered his eyes, but when I looked closely enough, I saw only the coals of the satellite fireplace, and even began to hear the sound of its low hiss and crackle, drowning out his words, and filling the cramped space of the bedsit like a quietly malevolent presence.  Faces appeared to swim around the light in his eyes, mesmerised and empty.

The same mystery seemed to surround the Quarter that February – the mystery of a fire which burned untended.  I could never catch any glimpse of my neighbours, only the indirect evidences of their continued presence.  Paranoid scenarios occasionally suggested themselves – the idea, for example, that I was in reality the only tenant of the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter, with the whole complex serving as a laboratory space, in which I was to be first isolated, and then subject to various psychogeographical experiments.  I could proceed, for example, by attempting to befriend some of the supermarket staff, or the people I occasionally saw loitering tensely around the offices during the day.   But I would have to suspect that they were also part of the experiment, feeding me misinformation, liable any day to vanish without trace like the other tenants of the high rises.

Occasionally, these paranoid ruminations were interrupted by a light streaking down from above, which my eyes quickly registered as a still-burning cigarette tossed from one of the higher balconies.  This was perhaps the definite proof that I wasn’t alone in the Quarter, but it still seemed possible to me that the falling cigarettes were in fact merely ones which I had tossed from my own balcony, perhaps a day or a week ago, returning to their point of departure by way of some localized quirk in the curvature of space/time.

Of course, these were merely fancies, but anybody following the Noosfeed accounts of my neighbours that February, and indeed the accounts of many individuals scattered across the city, would also have noticed a peculiar quietness and reticence descending on the network.  Many had stopped posting altogether, and those who continued to update their status did so in a kind of perfunctory manner, as though trying to withdraw from the community without soliciting undue attention to themselves.  Large sections of the population had become abruptly and mysteriously secretive; and, far from abandoned, the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter was a hotbed of hidden and subversive activity which would only become apparent in due course. 

Then, however, I knew nothing of this, and was only wondering where everybody had gone.

Continued shortly. 

Top image: Ivan Bilibin's illustration to a Russian fairy tale, via wikipedia   
Toho image: Shinto priestess performs purification ceremony prior to the filming of Terror of Mechagodzilla, via wikipedia.
Gold Star Image: Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, and Phil Spector, recording A Christmas Gift To You, at Gold Star Studios, 1963, via TV Guide.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

David Fincher’s Gone Girl and the Yuppies in Peril Sub-Genre.


If you grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, then you were doubtless exposed to a very specific type of glossy domestic thriller in which well-heeled, upwardly mobile couples with fantastic kitchens find their ideal existences thrown into turmoil by some malignant, disruptive force – normally a psychopath whose façade of mental normalcy crumbles like an industrial demolition job once the couple have let them into their lives.  New Zealand film critic and blogger Dominic Corry has aptly christened this sub-genre the Yuppies in Peril cycle.   The template was set in stone by Adrian Lyne’s 1987 smash Fatal Attraction: a domestic setting which is glamorous enough to be escapist, but familiar enough to allow queasy audience identification; an association of erotic gratification with unforeseen consequences and peril; a manipulative plotline that taps into themes of infidelity and gender relations.  The crucial element, of course, was Glenn Close’s obsessive, psychopathic clinger Alexandra Forest.   Not all the crazies in the cycle of films that followed were female, but the female psychopath remains the presiding motif in the genre, and as such the figure can be traced back to Jessica Walter’s proto-bunny burner in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971).  (Elements of the Yuppie in Peril and erotic thriller were also prefigured in Brian de Palma’s brilliant Dressed to Kill (1980), in which Angie Dickenson’s bored housewife pays a disproportionately horrendous price for indulging in casual infidelity with a stranger she meets at a gallery.)  Why did these films emerge precisely when they did?  In some respects, they reflected a turning away from the hedonistic and experimental sexual ethos of the 70s – a societal change reflected politically in the Reaganite conservative counter-revolution, and driven viscerally home by the emergence of the AIDS virus.  While the slasher movie reflected anxieties about sexuality which are perhaps universal to adolescents, the Yuppie in Peril and related erotic thrillers reflected a new cultural mood of anxiety relating to sexual promiscuity among adults.  In this light, a film like Fatal Attraction can be seen as reflecting an affirmation of conventional monogamous marital values, showing the necessity to purge them of the disruptive threat represented by Close’s unmarried psychopath.  Nevertheless, there is always a slight, perhaps unintentional, undertow of ambiguity regarding these monstrous female avengers – we feel that by the end Douglas has had his cake and eaten it, and perhaps a degree of sympathy for the bunny-burner.  These are the contentious issues that these movies skirt over; in her Slate article The Psycho Bitch, from Fatal Attraction’sSingle Woman to Gone Girl’s Perfect Wife, Amanda Hess points out that the original short film on which Attraction was based, Diversion, was far more a critique of the cheating husband than a demonization of the Other Woman.

                In his self-conscious horror pastiche/homage Cabin in the Wood, Joss Whedon lampooned the slasher movie audience’s sadistic appetite for watching pretty, vacant young things terrorized and hacked up.  The movie presents this generic convention as a seasonal sacrificial ritual, designed to pacify Lovecraftian elder-gods.  After Fatal Attraction, Hollywood’s eldritch gods – or any rate, its ticket-buying public – wanted to see picture perfect yuppies put through the ringer.  As Dominic Curry points out, the cycle largely bifurcated into erotic thrillers and _____ from Hell movies.  In the latter category, there was a Nanny from Hell (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), a Flatmate/Tenant from Hell (Single White Female, Pacific Heights), a Secretary from Hell (The Temp), various Lolita temptresses from Hell (The Crush/Poison Ivy), and on, and on.  I guess that in between the Cold War and War on Terror, we needed something to be frightened of; in the absence of clearly defined ideological threats, people from ordinary walks of life Who Happen to Be Psychopaths from Hell! had to fill the gap.  Don’t let them into your home!  The appetite for yuppie suffering had its watershed in 1992, the year that saw the release of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, and Unlawful Entry.  I maintain a certain nostalgic fondness for these torrid, schlocky entertainments.  They were so pervasive when I was growing up that some aspect of my view of the adult world almost felt like it was filtered through their cinematic world of exquisite kitchens and open plan apartments - this gleaming, aspirational world which was always threatened by the incursion of sexual temptation and psychopathic peril.

                It was clear from its trailers that David Fincher’s latest movie Gone Girl was going to be some kind of descendent of the Yuppie in Peril cycle.  Based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 New York Times Best Seller (which I haven’t read), the film is a domestic thriller/mystery whose primary narrative arc hinges on the question of whether or not Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) has murdered his missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike).  Unlike most of the Yuppie in Peril movies, the psychopathology is not an outside incursion, but resides within the marriage itself.  We discover that Amy has ingeniously staged her own disappearance and putative murder, in order to punish Nick for his affair with a younger woman, as well as a general sense of disappointment with his character and their marriage.  Nevertheless, the general arc of the story harkens back very distinctly to the glossy thrillers of the 80s and 90s.  1985’s Jagged Edge builds its suspense on the ambiguity of whether or not Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges) has murdered his wealthy socialite wife.  Written by creature of the Hollywood night Joe Eszterhas, and starring the original psycho bitch from Hell Glenn Close (this time on the side of the angels), Jagged Edge has a firm pedigree in the Yuppie/erotic sub-genres.  Nobody would accuse it of being high cinematic art, but its page-turning narrative is very effectively executed.   Much of this comes down to the lived-in authenticity of the performances.  Jeff Bridges, of course, is a singularly charming, likable presence; we want him to be innocent.   Close and the always brilliant Robert Loggia also do much to bring the pulp to life.   Another movie which effectively kept its audience guessing about the innocence of its protagonist was Alan J. Pakula’s 1990 adaption of Scott Turrow’s legal thriller Presumed Innocent.  This time around, prosecutor “Rusty” Sabich (Harrison Ford) has an affair with colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), who, while not a psycho bitch from Hell, turns out to be something of a careerist bitch from Hell.  After she’s found raped and murdered, Rusty finds himself first chief investigator, then prime suspect, in the case.  A late entry from Alan J. Pakula, whose magisterial 70s work is a major touchstone for David Fincher, Presumed Innocent is another taut, able piece of pulp that derives much tension from an exceptionally coiled and tense, possibly career best, performance from Ford.   The twist/conclusion of this movie is worth noting in relation to Gone Girl.  Rusty is exonerated after various legal shenanigans, and the Carolyn Polhemus murder remains unsolved.  Later, Rusty finds a bloody hatchet in his home, and we discover that it was his wife Barbara – hitherto a supportive, self-sacrificing figure in the background – who murdered Carolyn and fabricated the evidence of the rape.  Once again, we have a female avenger – the wife this time, rather than the mistress.   In Gone Girl, Pike’s Amy takes Barbara Sabich’s calculating rage to a spectrum of high operatic camp, and her faculty for stage managing crime scenes to the evil genius level of a Hannibal Lecker.   She is, in some respects, a Frankenstein’s monster quilted from all the female avengers, psycho bitches from Hell, and dangerous temptresses that dominated in the 80s/90s vogue for domestic and erotic thrillers.

                Though widely praised, Gone Girl is proving to be an extremely divisive film, and part of that divisiveness derives from its rootedness in this tradition of schlocky cinematic pulp.  Fincher is the premier Hollywood formalist of his generation – since 2007’s procedural masterpiece Zodiac, he has developed a signature filmmaking style which combines a unique affinity for using the very latest cinematic technologies, with an approach to staging and storytelling which is classical through and through.  Frequently working with dp Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher has taken advantage of the digital camera’s capacity to work in low light conditions (and utilize natural light sources) to create an inky, velveteen world of astonishing detail and subtle, twilight textures.  In his last three pictures, he has employed ambient electronic scores by Tent Reznor and Atticus Ross which fit his imagery like a glove, adding another layer of oil slick fluidity to his work.  But Gone Girl follows directly from another bestseller adaptation (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) from Fincher, and some critics have questioned whether the director's daunting technical prowess is wasted on these popular novels.  Indiewire critic Michael Nordine found it hard to “shake the notion that he could be doing something more rewarding than becoming the preeminent director of airport novel adaptations”, humorously opining that the director had gone “further down the Barnes & Noble rabbit hole” than the Tattoo adaptation had taken him.  Certainly, everybody seems to agree that Gone Girl is some kind of trash, but that's about as far as the consensus goes.  For some, it’s trash with a biting satirical edge; for others, its ruminations on 21st century relationships and jabs at modern news media are old hat and obvious.  Certainly, the notion that bestsellers are beneath Fincher’s talents is a questionable one, since airport paperbacks have served Hitchcock’s and Coppola’s just fine in the past.  Nevertheless, the question of whether Fincher is a good fit for the material is crucial to the success of the film – that is, either the juxtaposition of Fincher’s coolly precise and naturalistic style with the operatic high camp of the plot is a counter-intuitive masterstroke, or a disastrous miss-mash of form and content which results in an unsatisfying, tonally confused experience.   Having seen the film just once, I find it difficult to decide between the two.

                Throughout the first 40-50 minutes of the film, I kept thinking that although Gone Girl was infinitely better-made than its Yuppie in Peril predecessors, it didn’t seem to fulfil its generic obligations as effectively, in the sense that the film built up little or no suspense (for me) in relation to the question of whether or not Nick Dunne had murdered his wife.  This, I think, was for two reasons.  Ben Affleck is clearly a smart and highly engaged individual, and has won major plaudits for his directing in recent years.  I’m not sure, however, that he has ever had an especially strong dramatic presence on screen.  There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with his performance in this role, but if you think about his Nick Dunne in comparison with the type of actors who played the morally compromised Everyman role back in the 80s/90s – Michael Douglas’ nervy intensity, for example, his endless ability to make an utter shit somehow likable -  Affleck just doesn’t draw you into the character’s predicament, and the movie’s story, in quite the same way.  (Maybe it’s intentional – Affleck seems to float through his situation for much of the movie with all the nervous tension of somebody trying to rearrange a work engagement so they can go to a football match.)  Nobody can accuse Rosamund Pike of lacking dramatic fire in this picture, but perhaps if Affleck is presented to us at too low a key to draw us fully in, then Pike is introduced at too high a pitch.  We are introduced to her character, and shown a version of her meeting, courtship, and marriage to Nick, in series of subjective and unreliable scenes which feature breathless narration from her diary.  These cloying, overwritten sequences are in a sense a pastiche of the classic set-up of the Yuppie in Peril narrative: here is the couple who have everything, here is the couple who are perfectly happy; it would stretch ordinary credibility, surely, that anything could go wrong?  There a kind of generic self-consciousness in the set-up which is not especially conducive to traditional suspense, and something of the film’s hand has been shown: we know Amy is a psychopath, surely, because people who behave like this in movies are invariably psychopaths.  In an interesting dialogue about the movie at the Notebook, Doug Dibbern captures the non-naturalistic oddity of Amy’s characterisation in the first half of the film:  “But Flynn and Fincher make his wife, on the other hand, one of the most outlandish caricatures I’ve seen in years. Rosamund Pike plays her from the opening scenes with a vacant, ice-princess stare as if she’s always posing for a George Hurrell glamour shot. Her voice-overs have a disembodied ethereality to them, made all the more strange by the accompaniment of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s aqueous synthesizer bleeps.”  

                So between Affleck’s lack of character, and Pike’s heavily caricatured departure from anything resembling naturalistic character, we find it difficult to find anything resembling a traditional dramatic impetuous in the first section of the movie, despite the elegance of Fincher’s filmmaking and night-time cinematography.  Nevertheless, the film really does come to life at times.  The Amy reveal/twist may not be especially surprizing, but it unspools in a montage that is sheer, classic Fincher; it’s so good it makes you wish that you’d been enjoying the movie more up to that point.  Gone Girl begins to become a little more enjoyable in the second half, oddly enough the more it increasingly departs from any semblance of credibility.  Tyler Perry shows up as the beautifully named celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt  (say it again, TANNER BOLT!), and finally a character in the movie articulates in his whole demeanour what we have been feeling throughout: “Man, who the fuck are these people?  What planet are they from?”  It’s a peculiar universe in which we finally feel grounded in the presence of a celebrity defence attorney.  Another stand-out moment is Amy’s mid-coital box cutter murder, in which Fincher again displays his ability to turn sexualized violence into a disturbingly fascinating type of installation art.   This scene is executed with such Grand Guignal intensity that you can only imagine old school masters of bloody mayhem like Argento and DePalma tipping their hats in admiration.

                By the time Dunne is finally reunited with his bloody bride, you start to realize that this movie is actually operating in the realm of psychosexual high camp normally occupied by directors like Brian DePalm or Paul Verhoeven.  This again raises the question of the fit between Fincher and the material – on the face of it, it’s a peculiar juxtaposition with the cool, methodical, and naturalistic style which he brings to bear on the movie.   I didn’t enjoy Gone Girl much when I was watching it, but ever since I’ve had the lingering suspicion that maybe I was bringing the wrong expectations to bear – maybe Gone Girl is a bone dry postmodern farce that was never really interested in the suspense mechanics or surface social commentary of its source in the first place.  Critic Luke Goodsell took this view of the film, calling it a “pitch black satire of procedural pulp” that “uses the material’s contrived plot and stabs at relationship commentary as a launching pad for a jet-black comedy that at its best approaches the japery of a Grand Guignol.”  (This sounds like a very plausible read of the film, but comes pretty close to suggesting that Fincher is burlesquing his screenwriter Flynn under her nose.)  One of my main beefs with the film when I was watching it for the first time was the sense that the older, less prestigious, less self-conscious incarnations of this type of movie derived more plausibility from a more authentic sense of character - they seemed to contain more lived-in, realer people.  This is actually a common enough complaint with modern popular cinema.  Compare, for example, the characterization in Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien with that in the same director's 2012 prequel-of-sorts Prometheus.  The first creates its blue-collar characters with ease and authority - in the second we see only the confused machinations of the screenwriters trying to justify themselves through characters whose only consistency lies in their lack of verisimilitude.  The characters in Tim Burton's 1989 fantasia of Batman feel in an off-hand way more real and authentic than the stern mouthpieces of plot mechanics and thematic heft in Christopher Nolan's putatively hyperreal take on the same character.  For whatever confluence of reasons - and I suspect a more self-conscious, schematic approach to screenwriting is part of the problem - creating real-feeling characters no longer comes as naturally to our popular entertainments.  In the same way that the 21st century remakes of 70s horror films replaced the physically realer looking originals with gym-honed, air-brushed looking models, some kind of invasion of pseudo-people seems to be afoot in the entertainment world.  Maybe, if Gone Girl has something to say, intentional or otherwise, about the modern condition, it lies in this invasion of the pseudo-people.  Rather than representing some kind of feminist re-tooling of the psycho-bitch from Hell archetype, Pike's Amy seems to be primarily a creature who is fatally and obsessively devoted to the surface rather than the reality.  She returns to Dunne on the basis of a patently phony talk-show performance, but this doesn't bother her because this was all she was ever looking in the first place.  In the end of the movie, Nick and Amy's marriage has become a media creation, maintained through both writing books; they are more successful as simulacrum than they ever were as real people.  Ultimately, though, their marriage and characters never had a tangible sense of reality in the first place.  Friendless, seemingly floating in a vacuum, they were pseudo-people from the get-go.  Maybe every generation gets the Yuppies in Peril it deserves. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Bird Out of Space and Time (Part 4)

                We are in a cinema.  Red velvet curtains part with the slow, broken rhythm of old machinery.  On the screen: a young man running through a hospital corridor, eager, frightened.  A garden shot from a low angle, emulating the vantage of a child, toys scattered in the grass, clothes rippling on a line.  We are watching a montage of archetypal life moments, edited in the impressionic, elliptical style of Terrence Malick.  The music is by Sigur Ros, I think.  We see all the happiness of childhood: youthful, hardworking, loving parents, still in the bloom of their own extended childhood, first steps, bath suds and baby boy with hair slicked back like a 30s gangster, cuts and bruises soothed, horseplay, sad-eyed dogs, hidden places under hedges and trees, everything bigger than it really is, each place a full and effable world of its own, the magic texture of fading evening light in that timeless duration in which you will soon be called from the garden where you and other children pitch their voices like darting smoke shapes high into the air above the houses.  Intercut with this, the camera tracks after a woman walking barefoot along a beach.  She wears a flowing white dress that ripples in the breeze.  Her walk is sensual but the image is ethereal rather than sexualized; we have the impression that this beach and this woman represent a still point or timeless dimension separate from the turning world of the life montage.  Now we are careening towards adolescence, through chalk-board classrooms, muddy playing fields and shin-grazing concrete yards, spinning giddily faster and faster around the pole of a basketball hoop, huddling from a downpour on the wooden pew of a cave-like shelter, making our first friends in that bigger world and its slower, almost non-existent time-passages, but the montage is ushering us along, from pre-lapsarian joys to our first discords and disappointments, to corridors haunted by vindictive whispers, tearful girls fleeing the casual cruelty of empowered cliques, boys gathering in a landscape of graffitied concrete, weeds, and refuse, milling around two who are fighting, the crowd frightened and excited by the electric charge of adrenaline and threat of bloodshed, the music slowing now to a mournful interlude as parents too, no longer young, are losing a kind of innocence, drifting away from one-another, entering a phase where the second bloom of childhood must recede away as their children are thrust into the same drear, incomplete, squabbling, alienated world from they always sought escape, and the contours and horizon lines of their own lives now appear implacably fixed and delimited, a train rooted to a narrow, straight track, the train itself palpably slowing while the landscape through which it moves appears only to accelerate, a period of regrets and contrafactual reveries wherein roads not taken begin to assume a gleaming brilliance in direct proportion to the increasing dimness of those gone down, our only hope perhaps in the slow stillness of the beach and the woman’s steady thread, but the montage is moving again, through lecture theatres and cosily shabby rented accommodations, out from our small towns and suburbs, into our first ecstatic taste of freedoms, electric city nights, bustling cafes, the buzzing, expectant warmth of softly-lit bars, sexual tension breeding exaggerated nonchalance and shy self-awareness, finding our first lovers in that untethered and electrically charged world of our early adulthood, the music is beginning to swell, to return again to its initial march of joy, as our parents too are beginning to discover an autumnal contentment, and once we have set aside the wilder vagaries of our play, we find ourselves very alike after all, no longer strangers but friends threading along the same path, and we know that we are returning to where the montage began: we are moving back to the suburbs and the small towns, to the hospital, to the garden, to the scattered toys and the rippling clothes-line, the dens beneath the hedges and bushes.  The music has reached its crescendo, and now a series of sustained, falling chords encapsulate and summarise everything we have seen.  We are in a vast, high-ceilinged timber room, white with natural light from windows that overlook a palatial garden.  It is some kind of retirement home, and the room is filled with beaming, serene senior citizens.  The camera shows us some in close-up: we see the faces of children beneath the lined and drawn skin.  They all have touch screen devices – pads and phones – and they replay the images from the montage on their devices, turning back first steps again and again with their fingers.  We return to the beach, and see the woman head-on for the first time.  She is breathless as she speaks, as though the recipient of revelation: “NOOSFEED.  Because we share everything, nothing is ever truly lost.” 

The feature begins.  

                My early days in the Quarter were characterized by a peculiar conjunction of silence and deafening tumult.  The silence of those days related to my life, which I had made hermetic and undisturbed with a surprizing ease and briskness.  People assumed, I suppose, that I was busy with my Pendleton book, and having expressed their terse concerns in relation to my breakup with Catherine, were happy enough to leave me to my own devices.  I had been vague in relation to where I was moving, so nobody really knew where I was.  I had no classes to teach, no emails to answer, no deadlines – nothing but a surplus of time in which to do what I had as yet no precise conception of.   But just as my own inner life was assuming this quietude, the outer, natural world had fallen into one of its increasingly characteristic convulsions.  Our summers now, as you know, are hotter than ever before, and extend their bounty of clear skies and sunshine well into late September and even early October.  I believe that these impossible Indian summers engender some slight stirring of an ecstatic paganism in our disposition – the summer sunset in October being like the enigmatic Midnight Sun spoken of in the lore of initiates.  However, in December and January we are subject to that other aspect of paganism: the sense of dread incumbent upon our inability to control the natural world.  At the beginning of each New Year, as though to test our mettle, we are lashed, battered, and excoriated by nature at its most viciously temperamental. 

                      In the first of those out of kilter Januarys, we had a prolonged period of ice and snow.  I recall a strange atmosphere one evening coming home from work.  It was very dark, conveying a feeling of the late night or early morning rather than the customary evening bustle – the sense of that time which is quiet, hidden, and occulted from the sleeping majority.  Perhaps it was the silencing of the traffic – the streets were too perilous to traverse – which created that odd atmosphere.  Unable to drive their cars or take buses home, the workers lined the footpaths in droves, picking their way like tip-toeing sleepwalkers across the icy pavements.  But what was peculiar, what really impressed itself upon me that evening, was the mood I sensed among my fellow walkers.  Everybody was very quiet, and everybody had a certain, almost childlike look in their eyes.  I believe that they were looking around at the beauty of a frozen, stalled city, and entertaining the suspicion that this was how things were going to be from now on – all the steady, grinding rhythms of the industrialized, technological world were going to fall away to a resurgent and defiantly unpredictable nature.  And I really think that at that precise moment, the idea was very appealing to them – they took a quick stock of the whole contour of their lives, the sense of disgruntled panic every morning, the repetition of their work lives, the petty conflicts that festered in those artificial environments, the endless concessions, the small defeats and smaller victories almost lost to visibility like the spokes on a spinning wheel, the lack of real danger or prospect of real reward in their lives -  and suddenly the idea of it all collapsing in a heartbeat felt reassuring rather than threatening.  It was the particular joy a school child feels at the prospect of school closing due to inclement weather – the magic anticipation of that stolen day, that it might last forever.  It was that evening which first got me thinking about those lines in The Circuitous Path, about those young people of 1905 “eagerly willing the catastrophe”, which, in that century, turned out to be the Great War, and those many decades of carnage in which the technologies of the Space and Information Ages tentatively began to take shape.

                The snow thawed, however, and our days yet belonged to the classroom roll-call.  Since then, winter has denied us even the consolatory aesthetic pleasures of the snow, and we have been subject instead to bitter storms and torrential rainfall, to weather which is apt to make us feel older than our time rather than rekindle childhood embers.  It was in the midst of this stormy season that I moved into my apartment in the Quarter.  Later, I thought that this appeared like the first stage of some grand conspiracy to make me a prisoner of the place; that those early days in which I barely left the apartment somehow contributed to the peculiar agoraphobia which I came to experience whenever I strayed too far from the Quarter.  The gales howled through the canyon between the towers like a beast butting its head hither and tither against the walls of a narrow stall; raindrops were pelted against the glass balcony doors, breaking the light from the other buildings into tiny, liquid projectiles.  Up there on the 17th floor, I had the feeling of being at sea, and the guilty conscience of a Jonah drawing his adopted vessel to wrack and disaster.  It was hard to think of anything but water in those water-logged days.  My only outings were quick dashes across the courtyard to the supermarket which was located on the ground floor of the D tower.  On the first such excursion, I bought wellingtons and an umbrella, changing out of my sodden trainers in the foyer of the supermarket.  I watched the news on television in the afternoons.  At home, coastal areas assaulted by titanic waves and flooding, emergency provisions found wanting once again; Britain is even worse off, its countryside severely flooded, panoramas of drowned villages and towns, helicopters ferrying families off the rooftops of their sunken farmhouses.  My television was set at an angle against the glass panelling of the balcony, making the whole a consistent watery study.  I turned down the volume, shifting my eyes between the spatter of rain against the glass, and the images of disaster on the television screen.  It generated a peculiar effect of synaesthesia between the immediate world and that mediated through the television screen, as though the winds gusting my apartment were travelling into a tiny coastline that existed on the border of the television, and the rain from the balcony seeping into a tiny Great Britain were it was magnified into a great flood.  The newscasters spoke with the rising, whistling cadence of the wind, and exchanged terse, meaningful looks.

                At night, the steady rainfall was seeping into my brain, and I began to have a series of Flood dreams.  These dreams were all variations of the same basic apocalyptic scenario.  I awake one morning to find that the whistling wind and patter of rain have finally ceased.  There is an overwhelming calm, an utter silence.  I get up, open the sliding doors and step out onto my balcony, to discover that the whole world has been submerged overnight in water.  I note with a start that the water level reaches to about a metre below my balcony.  Everything below that point is lost forever, the beginnings of a new archaeology.  By a hair’s breath, I have been selected as one of the tiny Elect, the Chosen remainder.  It was surely for this reason that the Quarter was built, and I so strangely drawn to it, that I, and the other dwellers of the topmost storeys of the high rises, should be preserved to carry the human seed into this New Dispensation, and thus a strange new life begins for us, the Elect, the balcony-dwellers.  The weather is always warm and sunny now, and soon our pallid flesh acquires the vivid reddish brown of mariners.   We construct make-shift fishing rods from exercise equipment and speaker cords, and spend our days casting out from our balconies, enjoying a languid, mystical kind of subsistence.  Strange creatures are occasionally witnessed moving beneath the placid surface, providing the vague outline of speculative future mythologies.  A new language of physical gesture, similar to flag semaphore, evolves to facilitate communication from balcony to balcony, tower to tower.  People court one another in a sequence of distant, ambiguous facial expressions and physical motions, leading ardent lovers to climb to higher storeys, or swim across the channel between the towers, to join the object of their desire on their balconies.  It seems that this gesture, this leap of faith, is enough, and no lover is ever rebuffed.  The new lovers embrace, and a quiet celebration erupts among the other survivors.  Up on Roger Grady’s roof garden, a boisterous party is in perpetual swing.  It seems to me that of all the Chosen, this, the highest point, is by far the most favoured vantage, the most beloved of whatever mysterious Providential forces preserved us all from the Flood.  The party on the roof-garden embodies for me the ultimate expression of an elite sensibility: to retain one’s essential frivolity, even in the face of the end of the world.  In every dream, I am nervously preparing myself to finally abandon my own balcony, and commence the treacherous swim and climb which would take me up to Grady’s penthouse, to the apex of our deluge-shrunken world.

                Each morning, I awoke from those dreams as though cast out from paradise.  The dappled sunsets, the languid ocean beneath my balcony, the strange flag semaphore language moving in waves across the balconies, these things echoed in my mind throughout the day as pure, crystalline flashes of something real and indelible, something which I could apprehend but never quite grasp.  Dreams are wasted on our somnambulistic, dreaming selves, just as our lives, I suppose, are wasted on our wakeful selves.  In either case, we cannot grasp the delicate, transitory opportunity that is there only until the daylight draws in.  My days then, sequestered in the apartment, were dull and unproductive.  I thought at first that I might actually make a stab at completing my book about Pendleton and The Circuitous Path, but the whole project started to instil in me a kind of superstitious anxiety.  The protagonist of the poem is trapped in a cycle of eternal recurrence, destined to lead the same life over and over, the same life characterised by an overwhelming sense of loss, of scuppered opportunity.  In one section of the poem, it is suggested that this cycle may have been initiated by a stupid, trivial incident in which the protagonist (Pendleton?) and an American youth drunkenly mock a gypsy woman in a square in Barcelona.  The woman curses them by “making a precise pattern in the air with her fingers.”  As many scholars have pointed out, if the curse occurs within the cycle itself, then ordinary causality breaks down, and there is no way that the protagonist could conceivably have avoided getting trapped in the circle.  Each time he saunters drunkenly to the terrace in Barcelona in July of 1905, he has already encountered the American, and mocked the gypsy, and already been cursed to do precisely this, over and over again.  Or was there once an innocent timeline, where the protagonist could have behaved differently, and avoided his fate?  Like many aspects of The Circuitous Path, the episode of the gypsy’s curse is shrouded in mystery, although it is thought to have originated in a real incident in ‘05, which apparently unnerved the highly suggestible young Pendleton. 

                By this time, however, I had begun to take seriously the notion that the poem might itself be in some sense cursed.  An absurd notion, of course, and yet, had it not proved a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy for Pendleton himself?  He had written the poem in his early twenties, partially as an expression of his fears regarding how his own life might turn out.  He called it “an act of primitive magic, designed to alter my destiny, by writing it, and exorcising it, before it could happen in reality.” In the end, however, his real destiny had been perfectly adumbrated in the poem: Pendleton ended his days huddled in a blanket on the balconies of the Paimio Sanatorium, silent and distracted, probably half-mad, the recipient of a vision which was incommunicable, his mind becoming as sluggish and quiescent as the recuperative regime of the sanatorium itself, possibly burdened by the sense of each moment echoing recursively into the infinite, each moment echoing into infinity while his fellow patients wheezed and snored, and the war that ravaged the rest of Europe drifted in and out in fragmentary whispers, like the hidden world of adults intuited and half-glimpsed by children.

                I was beginning to suspect that perhaps the poem might have a similarly disastrous effect on the lives of its scholars.  There have never been many Pendleton scholars, and I only ever encountered two in the flesh.  Looking back, it seemed like both of them were a little spectral, a little distant, a little suggestive in their manner, as though they knew something, and were carefully sounding me out in order to ascertain whether I was also in the loop, and whether it would be safe to broach certain topics in my company.   At the time, I’d written it off as the paranoia or subtle Machiavellian skulduggery typical of scholars in the humanities; now, however, I wasn’t so sure.   One of the professors invited me by email to attend the first ever Pendleton conference, which was to take place in the small Moldovan university town of Mitergrad.   My suspicions were quickly aroused when I could find no reference to Mitergrad anywhere on the internet, except as the 18th century setting for La Mashera del Gatto Diavolo ( 1963, US title: Nine Lives to Kill One Maiden), a little seen and critically derided Gothic shocker from Italian director Lucio Soavi, better known for his efforts in the “Peplum” genre.  Once again, I’d written it off at the time as a juvenile attempt at academic sabotage, but I now I had to wonder what I might have found, had I flown to Moldova and followed the email’s complex directions.  I began to recall the more outré speculations I’d been exposed to as an undergraduate regarding the image of the Bird out of Space and Time, and the peculiar fate of Pendleton’s friend and fellow poet William Edward Pusey, who disappeared without a trace in 1902.  Some said that his researches into the esoteric architecture of London had led him to the discovery of a magical portal through which he’d absconded; others that his failure to discover said portal prompted him to jump into a lonely stretch of the Thames, a grim fate possibility covered up by his father, the Rev Anthony Pusey of St Saviours Church, Pimlico.  (Perhaps he had been invited to a conference at Mitergrad?)  Thrown into a panic one afternoon by these febrile recollections and imaginings, I resolved that the project had to be abandoned.  By way of a symbolic gesture, I took my dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of The Circuitous Path out onto the balcony, and cast it out over the railing. The winds whipped it up, and the slender paperback unfurled like a bird spreading its wings.  I thought for an instant that it might fly right back into my face in a moment of pure, portentous slapstick, but instead the winds died away for a miraculous instant, and straight down it sailed, with a peculiar grace and slowness, as though it were cushioned by parachute, down into the watery grey courtyard below, where the winds caught it again. 

                Shortly after that, I had the last, and most complex and puzzling, of my Flood dreams.  Though following the same scenario, this one started up differently from the others.  In this version, I found myself disastrously ill-suited to the post-Flood world.  First of all, it transpired that all of my immediate neighbours had been attending a kitsch fondue party on the 11th floor when the world ended, and thus my balcony was a little isolated.  All my attempts to construct a fishing rod had been an abject failure, so I hadn’t eaten for several days.  Coupled with this, I was badly sunburned and possibly even suffering from mild sunstroke.  In this poor physical shape, my mental processes were extremely sluggish and disordered, and I was unable to grasp the basics of the flag semaphore language, which everybody else seemed to have acquired with an almost psychic rapidity.  Being out on the balcony became unbearable; I felt alienated from all the other survivors, and became utterly paranoid about what they were communicating to one another with the ceaseless motion of their arms.  I lie in my room in a feverish condition.  I have some recollection of the other dreams, where the end of the world had been a tranquil paradise.  Something, clearly, has gone terribly wrong.   It seemed like it might be all over for me.  Just then, I hear a tremendous sound, the angry growl of a motor, coming from the balcony.  I pick myself out of bed, and stagger in the direction of the sound.  Shafts of sunlight are dancing through the whole apartment, whirling and spinning at tremendous speed.  The source of all this chaos couldn’t be more startling: a helicopter, painted to resemble an iridescent dragon fly, hovers directly over my balcony.  It is piloted, with considerable adroitness, by the television personality Roger Grady, with one hand at the controls and the other gingerly holding a mojito.  He wears a straw boater hat, round, cherry-tinted sun-glasses, and suspenders that hoist up tremendous, high-waisted cream slacks.  “Jump aboard, Old Sport!”  He grins with crooked, conspiratorial gusto.  The ebullient theme tune of Magnum, P.I. (1980-88) plays briefly while I balance myself on the railing, and clamber into the helicopter in a wide shot.

                Grady passes me the mojito, and speaks in a rapid, excited cadence: “Well, Phase 2 is well and truly under way now, what?  It just happened a lot quicker than I could have expected.  But I knew it was coming……it was all there, in the Green Language……it’s all there, back in the tapes.”  I have no idea what he’s talking about, and form the distinct suspicion that he has me confused with somebody else, but say nothing.  I’m still dazed by this stunning reversal of my fortunes.  A couple of sips from the cocktail have an instantaneous effect on my sense of well-being.  I feel revivified, almost reborn.  This new lease of life, coupled with the upward thrust of the helicopter, leaves me feeling exhilarated.  Grady continues to talk: “There’s a little soiree going on at the homestead that you really ought to attend, Old Sport.  But I want you to pay very close attention.  The whole evening is peppered with vital clues, do you understand?”  The helicopter makes a rocky landing on a makeshift pad on the roof-garden, the pressure from the blades whipping a series of baroque designer follies off the heads of a gaggle of actress-models who have sauntered over to admire the landing.  The hats take off like exotic birds, out over the edge of the garden where they will never be seen again.  “Oh, well,” Grady, stoical, “they were going out of fashion anyway.”  “But what does fashion mean, today?” I press, vamping the part of a Grave, Humourless Intellectual.  “The same thing it meant yesterday, Old Sport: whatever we can pry out from the wreckage below.”  Grady saunters away.  “Business to attend to.  Feel free to mingle.”  He joins a group of stereotypical German youths, clad in a fetishistic polyvinyl chloride variation of the Bavarian lederhosen ensemble, at a Ping-Pong table.  The ruddy-faced German youths are embroiled in a heated argument over the game, and two of them replay a particularly contentious volley in mime, over and over, until Grady catches the notional ball in mid-air.  He extends it in his closed fist, splays out his fingers, and blows the ball away like a conjuror.  The Germans appear to snap out of a trance, and dropping rackets huddle conspiratorially around him.                                            
                 I make my way nervously towards the party, which consists of a handful of small, insular groups, when I spot a familiar face seated at one of the tables.  It is the girl who let us into Grady’s party several years ago, and vanished after going to fetch glasses. 
                 “Hello you,” she says, “how have you been?”  She is about twenty two or three, clad in a punkish style suggesting a slight affinity to the Catastrophe Kid subculture.  Her face is calm, and has an endearing quality of jaded intellectual curiosity.  I take a seat at the table.  
              “Oh, you know.  The end of the world.”  
              “I know, right?  My name is Christina, by the way.”  
               “Have you been here since the last time I saw you?” 
            Her face betrays a slight chagrin.  “Yeah.  I tried to leave a few times at first, but it just wasn’t happening.  I dunno, there was something weird about the Quarter, you know?  Like it enveloped you, or something.  Every time I tried to leave, the outside world felt either threatening, or really uninteresting, you know what I mean?  Of course, if I had left, where would I be now?  Davy Jones’ Locker, with all the rest.”  A girl comes to our table with a tray, and leaves us fresh cocktails in plastic cups like they used to have at concerts.  I ask Christina if she lost her parents.  “I guess so.  I don’t really think about them that much.  They were all screwed up.  They were, like, middle-aged swingers and pill-poppers.  It was more like I was their parent, you know what I mean?  They wanted me to work in television, and used to, like, virtually pimp me off to these connections they had.  I don’t think about them too much.  Hey, you know there’s a theme to this evening’s party?  Grady said that we have to figure out which sign of the Zodiac each of the people represent.  He also said that Sheldrake might be here, but I think he was putting me on about that.  Now, let me see, I assume that Grady must be Aries, and the Iguana Twins have to be Gemini, obviously, but what about the rest?” 

                I look over at the nearest group to us.  They are vamping a nautical theme.  There is a Popeye and Olive Oyl, a Captain Birdseye, a Sea Dog Dark Rum sailor, a Captain Morgan, and a Captain Ahab.  They are snorting lines of ketamine from an old barrel, and dancing to techno music.  With a look of zealous concentration etched into his hoary face, Ahab pounds his stump against the ground to the beat while the others clap and cheer him on.  As a group, they are in high spirits, but there is a look about them which gives you the heebie-jeebies.  Captain Birdseye slumps against the barrel and hugs his knees, a look of stark terror in his eyes.  He is haunted by the same lobsters that pursued Satre down the Champ Elysees.  Finding no obvious Zodiacal parallels in these personages, I continue to scan the crowd, my eyes now resting on the inexhaustible comedienne Maxi Mediumwave.  Unsurprisingly, the end of the world caught Maxi in the middle of pantomime season, and this evening she is clad – literally and ingeniously – as Jack and the Beanstalk.  She wears a one-piece body suit which is festooned in a dense tangle of lush green vines.  Somewhere between her naval and bosom hangs Jack, his face in profile revealing a look of hopeful determination.  On her shoulder, the ravenous giant leans over the parapet of his castle, mouth watering and eyes glinting with epicurean malice.  Mediumwave confers with a gypsy fortune teller, who passes her a card.  “Always the Tower,” she sighs, eyeing our table suspiciously, “always the Tower.”

                Christina is also scanning the crowd for Zodiacal correspondences.  “The one I really can’t figure out,” she says, “is Tilda Swinton.  Which one is she?”  
                I follow her eyes to a table where the actress and unconventional fashion muse Tilda Swinton sits by herself reading a paperback.  
               “How did she get here?” I ask.  Christina’s brow furrows.  “I’m not sure.  Some people say she came with the Iguana Twins.  I also heard that she was at an ironic Tupperware party on the 14th floor, and when the Flood started, she climbed up the balconies with an airport paperback clutched between her teeth as a last keepsake of pre-Flood civilisation.  Who knows?”  Swinton is very aloof, and it is almost like she isn’t really there.  By this point, I’m growing bored and frustrated. 
              “What do people talk about now, anyway?”  
              “Well, there isn’t really anything to talk about now, you know.  The sun comes up, and the sun goes down.  People really just talk about the Party, because that’s the only thing that’s happening at the moment.  Oh, rumours swirl around, from time to time, but they don’t ever amount to anything.  A rumour went around last week that the people down below were still updating their Noosfeed accounts.  It was an exciting rumour for a couple of hours, but of course it wasn’t really true.  Sometimes people discuss the shapes which are seen in the water.   Are they real, or illusionary?  Are they organic, or mechanical?  It never really amounts to anything.  Then, of course, there are the rumours about Drylandt – the fabled landmass that rose up after the Flood, a mystical new home for humanity.  People get quite excited about that rumour from time to time.  They’ve actually built a couple of boats, you know?  There’s one in the spare bedroom, and a bigger one in the hall.  But those boats will never go anywhere.  People get into them when they’re high, and pretend that they’re on legendary voyages.  They pretend that they are St Brendan, or Columbus, or Magellan, or Picard, or one of those.  It’s fun when you’re high.  But all of those things are just pipe-dreams.  Who wants to go back, anyway?  The real topic that engages people’s attention is the Party itself – its movements, its ebbs and flows, its morphing contours and lines of force, its sustainability.  Who is falling apart?  Who is reconfiguring?  Who is adapting to the condition of permanent Party, finding the fluidity, the correct Zen state, to just roll along with the endless ups and downs, all the changes we go through, the slow transformation of the human nervous system into a flashing pinball machine?  It really is an interesting topic.  The practical end of things is under Grady’s supervision.  The main challenge he faces is keeping the supply of drugs and booze steady.  Luckily, he happened to have some scuba diving gear handy, so parties go down to the lower storeys every few days to gather booze and tinned food.  There’s loads down there.  They say it feels a bit weird, lifting booze and food from dead people, but isn’t that just what we were doing before, anyway?  Only then we couldn’t see the dead people, except sometimes on the news.  Getting drugs is a little more difficult, and a little more pressing, considering the state everybody’s brains are in.   Grady sends a couple of dudes on jet skis out to this other high rise where there’s lots of drugs.  They barter for the drugs with booze and food.  Now, the sustainability of drugs and booze issue isn’t really that serious.  The people over on that other high rise, they’re a little wild, you know?  Tribal.  They were Catastrophe Kids before the Flood, so the end of the world was exactly what they were waiting for.  Pretty soon, they’re going to start manufacturing their own drugs and booze.  I mean, they’ve got animals over there and everything.  They’re way ahead of everyone.  So, that issue is safe enough.  The Party can go on indefinitely, in terms of resources.  The real question is: what will happen to people’s minds, what will they evolve into, under these conditions?  The Party at the End of the World is a really fascinating thing to watch.  I mean, people are losing their minds, literally losing their minds.  Their identities are becoming ad hoc, improvisatory creations that vary from room to room, hour to hour.  Everybody is just following the energy of the Party, adapting themselves to whatever conversation they happen to be in at a given time, whatever clothes they happen to be wearing, whatever drugs happen to be in their nervous systems.  It’s really free, but a little scary at times.  There are people inside the house who have really gone native.  They went into certain rooms weeks ago, and those rooms have become their total reality.  In one of the en-suite bathrooms, you have three people who have been living in the bathtub for two weeks, and a girl who’s been in the shower for over a month.  We leave food for them, but they’re very suspicious about outsiders.  They just talk about the tiles, and the sink, and the mirror.  The mirror really fascinates them, because I think they don’t understand reflections yet.  Every couple of hours, the girl in the shower turns on the hose and just starts howling!  I mean, wow, I wonder if she’ll ever make it back.  The people in the tub call her the Glass Witch.  It’s a fascinating scene in there, but like I say, they’re very suspicious of outsiders.” 

                I have conflicting feelings about Christina’s description of the Party.  Part of me finds it very appealing, and another utterly terrifying.  Surely there is a need for something, some stable oasis, some familiar place to return to, something private you may only have persuaded yourself was profound, some separate realm which is yours alone, away from the burgeoning demands of the Party?  Or am I just vamping the part of a Grave, Humourless Intellectual again?  “What about you, Christina?  Have you lost your mind?”  “No, not at all.  I’m an observer, like you.  You can’t observe if you lose your identity.  I’m still me.  I remember my first Holy Communion, my first kiss, the illustrations in a book I used to stare at when I was five.  Everything.  (Smiling sardonically, vamping an old pre-Flood advertising slogan.)  Because we share everything, nothing is ever truly lost.”  The sun is at its zenith, and the small crowd on the roof-garden are all out dancing: the actress-models, German youths in PVC lederhosen, Maxi Mediumwave, the fortune teller, and the Nautical Crew.  Captain Birdseye has gotten a ferocious second wind, and plays a squeeze box while he dances to the techno, the Seadog Rum sailor having taken his place in the lobster-infested K-hole.  Ahab is being very uncool, asking people to feel his stump, and guilt-tripping them when they express discomfort with the idea.

                Things were a little hazy after that.  Now it is sunset, and there are only a few of us left.  Myself, Christina, Ahab, and a couple of the actress/models. We are all sitting cross-legged on the ground, watching the Iguana Twins play a game of Connect Four.  The ground around us is strewn with crushed plastic cups, the spent peels of lemon and lime, cigarette butts, sand, and assorted curiosities that served some now forgotten function in the earlier frolics: the flattened outline of an inflatable woman, an archery target, a pair of walkie-talkies, an amateur astronomer’s telescope.  The Connect Four grid is balanced on two large old books: The Loom of Art by Germaine Bazin, and Everybody’s Enquire Within: A Key to 10,000 Questions and 100,000 Facts, edited by Charles Ray.  There is an ornate hookah positioned beside the books, its pipe trailing off like a glistening snake into the sand and debris.  The game itself is a vintage set, with yellow grid, and red and black checkers.  Perhaps it is the deep, reddish texture of the light, or the presence of the hookah, or the look of rapt concentration on the youthful faces of the Iguanas, but the scene possesses for me a peculiar antique glamour.  I’m thinking of Persia, or Byzantium, or the Ottoman Empire, and imagine the Twins as a pair of sultans, caliphates, or rajas, who play an intricate game while they await news from the provinces of some vast empire, news that will have passed into the ethereal realm of myth by the time the hoary messenger arrives into the gilded stillness of their palace.  The youthful princes are unperturbed by all the news that comes to them from dying lips, and the far-flung corners of their empire, for theirs is a sensual, mystical time that long predates clocks, a time of cyclical rhythms that turn about one another, each turning of the great wheels one and the same motion, each place the same one that will be returned to the next time around……

                I realize that nobody is actually following the game.  We are all looking intently at the grid, struggling to remember what ideal placement of checkers is required for a victory.  The Twins themselves are equally lost, and keep changing colour from one move the next.  Despite our frustrating inability to understand the game, a mood of blissful serenity is slowly creeping up on us, like a cat falling asleep to the low, contemplative hiss of a warm hearth.  The sun is beginning to sink now into the gleaming mirror of the earth, and it is as though a marriage of their essences takes place.  The sky contains impossible textures, and the water’s still surface is a molten, seething mass of dancing, shimmering, bright-light particles that seem to conjure up an aural landscape of distant bells, chimes, and dulcimers, memories of sandy beaches and soft whispers by firelight, ornaments that adorned the ceilings above our cradles and cots, slowly rotating as we drifted from one sleep into another.  The Twins have given up on the game by now, and fool around with the checkers.  Each Iguana takes a different colour, and they place a checker in the other’s eye, like a monocle.  Vamping moustaches with their index fingers, they peer at us from either side of the grid, smiling like children.  I recall all the speculation in the Pre-Flood days as to which of them, Bradley or Lucius, was the bad one.  In the mood I am in at present, however, it seems impossible to me that either of them could be bad.  They are the bright, buoyant, and unsullied children of the Sun card; their innocence is timeless, incorruptible, and perpetually renewing itself, regardless of how far we ourselves have strayed from that condition.  A peculiar thing happens then.  My image of the Twins is split into two separate frames.  The frames move apart, and then slowly overlay one another, until Bradly and Lucius are superimposed into a single frame, and become a single being, with a red checker in the left eye, and black in the right.  When the images overlay, I hear a delicate, suggestive chiming sound, the type of cue they used to employ on old soundtracks to alert the audience to a significant detail or clue, or to indicate the presence of a hidden, magical dimension to reality, manifested in some apparently mundane object or location. 

                My perceptions are becoming increasingly disordered.  The scene on the roof-garden is still there, but it is like a film, or several films, are being projected over it.  The first film shows the fortune teller, more youthful than she appeared earlier, seated in a dimly-lit, cramped cubicle.  She is turning up a spread of cards.  The camera closes in on the card she has just turned: it depicts an Indian peacock encased in an alchemist’s retort.  We cut to the fortune teller, recoiling with a visceral expression of fear.  This short sequence plays on a loop.  The anomalous card is an intrusion from Outside; like a curse, it infects the entire System, altering all previous and subsequent permutations.  Now this loop is overlaid by another film, and I see a wheel, divided into the traditional symbols of the zodiac, spinning slowly.  It is a grainy, degraded film-stock, possibly from an old documentary; I can dimly hear snatches of music, and a narrator’s voice.  My mind now recalls earlier images of people from the party, the memories transferred into this grainy film-stock.  As each person’s image appears, the wheel stops turning, and a sign is aligned with each image: Grady at Aries, Christina at Pieces, Maxi Mediumwave at Scorpio, the Iguanas at Gemini, and so on.  Each alignment is accompanied by the chiming sound, and the correspondences make perfect sense as they are revealed to me, although I cannot begin to articulate why. 

                My perceptions having finally stabilized, I turn to Christina, and say: “I feel like I’m on drugs!”  Everybody is laughing, and Christina is eyeing me like an amused, indulgent parent.  “Of course you’re on drugs!  Grady spiked you on the helicopter!  You’ve been in the Valley for the past couple of hours!  On behalf of all permanent and semi-permanent Valley-dwellers, I’d like to welcome you to the Party!”  Now I start laughing, and find I can’t stop.  It all makes sense.  The way everybody looked so strange, and vaguely threatening…..it was because they were all in the Valley.  The term itself makes an ineffable kind of sense: in the Valley somehow precisely describes my present mental condition.  The laughing fit subsides, and we become silent for a long stretch, absorbed in the deepening beauty of the sunset.  Our opiated trance is broken only once, when the Iguanas realize that they are still wearing their checker-monocles, and let both fall in a deftly synchronized relaxation of brow-muscles, prompting another laughing fit in the group.  Suddenly, we see two dots moving briskly across the shimmering waters.  Ahab springs to his feet with a monomaniacal gleam in his eye, and rushes over to the railing.  Now we see that the dots are Grady’s jet skis, returning from their errand at the other high rise.  They have stalled alongside the tower, and their riders are waving to the people on the lower balconies.  Ahab, his voice fierce and booming as the love the ocean once lavished upon the shoreline, hollers down to them: “HAST SEEN THE WHITE BALE?”  HAST THOU SEEN THE WHITE BALE?”  One of the men roots around in his rucksack, and hoists out a thick, bulging bag of cocaine, which he waves gingerly like a flag.   Ahab’s hoary features redden with contentment, and he touches the bridge of his nose lightly, like an expectant Lothario idly priming his erection.  The Seadog Rum sailor, emerging glassy-eyed from the K-hole, teases Ahab: “You’re going to need a bigger nose.”   Grady and the Germans appear, carrying an Ikea couch from the house.  The couch is attached to a long, winding cable, and has two makeshift harnesses.  After a long preamble, Ahab bellowing: “Heave boys, HEAVE, will ye?”, we hurl the couch out over the railing. Then we are slowly hoisting the two couriers up the side of the high rise, and behind us, they are all emerging slowly from the interior of the penthouse, eyeing one another to see what each has come as tonight, wondering, as I am, what new fads, rumours, bitcheries, melt-downs, past-life regressions, spontaneous abreactions, and coolly theoretical orgiastic permutations will emerge in the course of the night, what new symptoms and outward manifestations of the Party at the End of the World will be exhibited for us, and through us…… 

                I came to from this long dream in an instant.  The storm had subsided during the course of the night, and the season of wind and rain finally exhausted itself.  The world was battered and weary, but once again it trundled along, a slight stirring of spring’s imminence drawing it through the slow and overcast days.  Although I didn’t realize it then, strange things were also stirring in the seclusion of the high rises, waiting to bloom and sprout when the temperature was right. 

The top image is The Sun from the Thoth tarot deck by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris.  The other cards are from the surrealists playing deck by Andre Breton et al, which I discovered at Dangerous Minds.  The images of the zodiacal wheels are from the wiki entry on the zodiac.  Continued shortly.