2. Occultism in the High Rises.
I should have been at my very lowest ebb that summer, but for some peculiar reason I felt content. Well, perhaps content would be overstating the case. It would be better to say that I was untroubled. My days were characterized by that particular kind of languor which neither troubles the soul, nor ever stirs it to any great pitch of excitement. For most people, accustomed to life’s stressful rhythms of tension and release, such a period of extended suspension is hardly the most satisfactory mode of existence. For myself, however, I was forced to conclude that such a lifestyle held an undeniable attraction. To live without the customary stresses and pleasures of the active existence is burdensome in many respects; and yet while other muscles and faculties atrophy, the imagination is stirred to a strange, languid pitch of creativity, and subject to slip periodically into a state of placid ecstasy, a sensation like that of surrender to some exquisite painkiller. Now, I should say that though I felt myself to be in perfect equilibrium, it may have appeared from the outside as though I were depressed, or undergoing some kind of bipolar fugue. Such things are difficult to judge objectively.
The main upheaval, of course, was the cooling off of my relations with Catherine. That may seem like an oddly impersonal way of describing it, but the whole business was itself every bit as chilly and impersonal as the commonplace implies. Our relationship had come to an end without a bang, with scarcely even a whimper. We’d simply grown bored of each other. In some respects, it was a relief to end a relationship of eight odd years on such cool and amicable terms, but it’s hard not to feel a little cheated when you’ve spent a large sum on liquor and have no hangover to show for it. Most couples, I imagine, are subject to this type of boredom in their relationships, but stave it off by having children. Typically, that’s the next leg of the adventure. This, however, was not an option for Catherine and I; we regarded the idea of having children as being as inexplicable and unseemly as that of joining a cult, or espousing some alternative medicinal theory that the respectable newspapers frown upon. We had that, at least, in common. So there was nothing else to it. Magnanimously, I insisted that Catherine should remain in our house, while I would find a new place to live and continue to pay my share of the mortgage, until a more permanent arrangement could be arrived at. That, more or less, was how I found myself living in the only three-quarters finished luxury apartment/mixed-use quarter by the dockside quays.
The Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter was one of those wonderful follies which had been dreamt up during the property boom; dreamt, it should be added, with such keenness that most of it was actually built before anybody woke up or came to their senses, and thus it stood half-finished as a memorial to the strange fancies and manias of a time past. It was an ambitious project which sought to transform several blocks of mostly derelict industrial yards into a sleek, all-purpose urban living space. The central square was composed of four gleaming high rise towers that punctured the sky like glass hypodermics, and overlooked the rest of the complex: a wooded park, twelve smaller apartment blocks, an artificial lake, and a drop leading down into a massive square gouge in the landscape, where concrete foundations had been laid, and work abruptly ceased when funding for the project dried-up. The high rise towers had their own supermarkets, cafes, gyms, and crèches, and one of the office complexes contained a large, open plan area which had been nebulously labelled “a cultural space.” Very little happened there, most of the time. Exhibitions passed through, each one strongly redolent of its origin in government grants and corporate commissions. I often wondered where it went next, and where it ultimately wound up, this forlorn and passionless art of minor officialdom. Perhaps it never stopped moving, like an ancient touring band that performed the world over to audiences who were there because they dimly remembered something – the former vitality of the musicians, or of themselves. Once, I recall that an orthopaedic surgeon who lived in Block D had elected to read some of his poetry in the cultural space. After debating for some time which were the greater cruelty – to attend the recital, or avoid it – I chose the latter.
I have never fully understood what drew me to the Quarter. To begin with, I’d always been fascinated by different styles of housing. I remember that when I was a child, being driven around the countryside by my parents, something about houses always puzzled and intrigued me. A house was something which it was apparently obligatory for all adults to own, or aspire to own – a house and a little patch of grass, a neat row of trees to hide behind, or peer through. To an adult, such a thing is perfectly natural, but a child always longs to creep under the hedges and fences, to make a beeline through other people’s lawns and backyards like a cat in the shadows. Growing up, houses retained for me some sense of that essential strangeness – that potent variety of strangeness that hides under the most ordinary and familiar surfaces. Paradoxically, houses seemed to aspire to an appearance of emptiness and abandonment, and to a sense of mystery – like the adult personality, they frequently resembled a shell which had been constructed to hide something. What was it they sought to hide, in their appearances of order and homogeneity, of stability and calmness? What happened in those houses that you never visited, whose interiors you would never see?
Later, when I lived in the city, I developed a particular obsession with high rise apartment blocks. Stacked one atop the other, with their little balconies replacing gardens, they transformed the once organic business of living into a mass-produced commodity and strange kind of public exhibition. That was the thing that really captured my imagination about them: the way their balconies and windows positioned the once private act of living in a public space, and framed it like a painting or television screen to be perused by passing strangers. I couldn’t purge from my mind the notion that the apartment block was like a behaviourist’s laboratory, a lattice of glass cages whose occupants were unaware of the vast, clinical eye which surveyed their meagre world at a glance. Yet, at the same time, I found there to be a certain austere glamour and beauty in the idea of the high rise; the notion of living in a space which was at once private and public, in such close proximity to people who would remain as anonymous as the strangers on trams and buses whose direct gaze we labour to avoid. Yet for all my fascination, I never got to live in an apartment block. As a student, I passed through a succession of run-down Georgian dumps, and then Catherine and I moved into the suburban semi-detached which had been our home for the past five years. A year or two prior, work had begun on the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter, and the tram I took to the university passed by its construction site every morning. Although I would have been reluctant to admit it publically, the development fascinated me. It represented a corrosive ideal which I found oddly seductive: an aesthetic of beautiful, streamlined emptiness; a dream of money and intoxicating, even rapturous, surface pleasures; a setting for warmly-lit, drug-fuelled revelries and soft, opiated recuperations, whose regrets and sad vows were always replaced by fresh, renewed appetites, by new surrenders to giddy night and gaudy vitality.
My odd attraction/repulsion towards the Quarter was perhaps cemented by a photo feature I came across in one of the weekend supplements. The television personality Roger Grady had purchased one of the towers’ penthouse apartments. With prematurely greying temples, rugged features, and athletic build, Grady co-hosted the daily Afternoon Break show with the bubbly, voluptuous brunette Deborah Kelly. Grady was pictured enjoying a light continental breakfast on an expansive roof garden. Flanked by rectilinear decking, potted trees, and the gleam of distant skyscrapers, he wore off-white, slim-fit chinos, desert boots, burgundy golf sweater, and a navy windbreaker. “BACHELOR BREAKFAST”, the caption read, “TV personality coy about relationships, says gruelling work schedule doesn’t give him time to wine and dine.” Although Grady and I would later become very close, after a fashion, back then I regarded him with nothing but contempt and derision – the sort of contempt, mingled with a degree of unpalatable and unacknowledged envy, in which we tend to hold successful media personalities. Possessing certain things which we privately desire – good looks, exorbitant pay checks, the amorous advantages of public recognition, and so forth – media personalities provide us with an excellent opportunity to fashion our thwarted longings for self-indulgence into a species of dogged integrity, a sense of commitment, however ultimately untaxing, to grander things. The media personality provides an ideal inverted mirror, whereby an exaggerated sense of their flaws serves to inflate our own modest accomplishments.
My disdain for Grady had a more pointed resonance, however. During my more indolent student days, I had developed a peculiar erotic fixation with the deceptively anodyne landscape of afternoon television. Though maintaining a veneer of cheerful, wholesome banality, I began to detect in the afternoon scheduling a subliminal language of potent, transgressive eroticism. I saw a video once of a politician’s speech with all the words edited out. What remained were only the breaths between each sentence, and the look, at once panicked and solicitous, which signalled the commencement of each fresh utterance. It seemed to me, watching this video, that the body has its own compulsive, hidden language which it constantly seeks to smother and subdue by speaking, by losing itself in a stream of words. In the split seconds between speaking, the person appeared like a frightened animal, poised and alert, ready for fight or flight – then the words came, a tension was released, and a sort of torpor ensued. Speech, for all its marvellous efficacy, so often assumed the characteristic of a compulsive, hypnotic defence mechanism. Although I knew, in a sense, that the idea was perhaps more poetic than literally true, it seemed to me that a vast, hidden reality might emerge through the removal of the spoken word from news broadcasts, political rallies, debates, and everyday interactions. Bodies would dance about in perpetual, skittish motion, faces freeze in the naked panic of pure, silent being; shorn of all its ultimately hollow and officious verbiage, the landscape would become a pristine, sandy shoreline, washed by inhalations and exhalations of tremulous living breath. (I suspect that it was partially this earlier intimation of a secret language of the body which made me so receptive to Grady’s theories about the mysterious Green Language.)
I believed that the afternoon light variety programme would provide an ideal test case for these theories. Scrubbed of its banal pleasantries, I was certain that Afternoon Break would reveal the true mercenary sexuality that it subliminally communicated to housewives and the unemployed. That being said, my theories regarding the hidden erotics of afternoon television were never exhaustively developed, and may have been simply a by-product of my puppyish and mildly masochistic infatuation with Afternoon Break’s host Deborah Kelly, whose coquettish relationship with the camera thrilled me with its cold impersonality. Roger Grady, on the other hand, I found to be an irksome distraction. Even by the standards of light entertainment, he struck me as a failure. His bonhomie felt particularly forced, and his commitment to the variety format sorely limited; he made no attempt, for example, to hide his sullen masculine boredom during the fashion and cookery features, and was sometimes palpably rude to the guests who accompanied small animals or children. The feature in the weekend supplement detailing his purchase of the Harrington/Sheldrake penthouse thus further exacerbated my feelings of contempt and submerged jealousy towards Grady, and solidified the ambivalent glamour which the Quarter held over my imagination. Strangely, though, my destiny was becoming intertwined with that of Roger Grady. Long before I would move to the Quarter, and Grady make me the sole confidant of his inexplicable occult project, there was that strange, endlessly suggestive night in which I found myself attending a party at his feted penthouse.
This was a few years ago. The good times, I suppose. Things with Catherine were fine, and I was new enough to my work at the university that I didn’t yet find it oppressively tedious. The financial crash was a couple of years away, and still an unthinkable contingency in most people’s minds. Money was everywhere in the psychosphere – the allure of it, the smell of it colouring the horizon, its particular mania festering in the communal imagination like an adolescent’s first discovery of sexuality and its variegated possibilities. It was a Friday, I think; one of those summer nights where the sky acquires a certain crisp, electric sheen that merges seamlessly with the artificial glow of the city, bathing everything between the heavens and gutter in an ambient florescent haze, like the warmth of a distant, universal technology. The streets were filled with buoyant revellers of various types, beaming shoals that milled together and overlapped unpredictably in the evening’s loose and carefree momentum. I was drinking with a small group of my students, and at about eleven, a sleepy, neurotic rich girl called Esther announced that she knew some people who were going to a party in Roger Grady’s apartment. We all distained the world of minor celebrities, of course, but the opportunity to swim briefly in their ego-inflated fish tank seemed too good to pass up, so I very quickly found myself wedged into a taxi with Esther, two other girls, and a handsome, sullen boy named James, who played bass in a band called Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and maintained such an astringent air of aloofness that I was never certain if he was arrogant or merely slow-witted.
The girls were talking in rapid staccato bursts amongst themselves, while James and I sat in awkward silence. “Why are you called Four Flies on Grey Velvet when there’s five of you?”, I asked, to make conversation. James shrugged. “It’s just a name. Or George could be the grey velvet.” We were moving along the river, past pleasure boats and sodium orange walkways, the vacant, dreaming plazas of financial complexes, through the iron clockwork of an ancient, slate grey rolling lift bridge, and then we could see it off in the distance: the dream of the Quarter in its full nocturnal vibrancy, its jewelled gleam dancing on the surface of the river, and jutting proudly into the irradiated night sky. I was drunk enough already to feel like I was floating, disembodied, along a current of events, but everything after that was dreamlike, seductive and strange. We disembarked from the taxi, and ambled along a walkway that skirted the artificial lake, until we came to a stairwell that led up into the main courtyard. Once inside, we were dwarfed by the towers. I have always found the experience of that courtyard difficult to describe, and wondered at how the architects achieved its vertiginous effect. Looking up, you had the sense that the towers were not horizontal, but rather sloping diagonally toward a point, like the interior walls of a pyramid. The buildings wrapped their balconied walls around your visual field, as though they were floating on the air above you, and slowly closing in upon themselves. It was strange vista, somehow very appealing to me: the business of living arranged into geometrical and aesthetically spartan grids, uniform and rectilinear, yet set at some oblique, gravity-defying angle that made the whole structure feel weightless and dizzying to contemplate. While I was taking all this in, Esther was ringing her friend, looking up into the distant blackness where we envisioned Grady’s penthouse in full, sybaritic swing. After a long delay she finally got through, and following an even longer interval, a tiny, energetic, wide-eyed girl appeared at the door, miming greetings, apologies, and various other emotions as she struggled to open it. We entered a mezzanine with a concierge’s desk and vast, antiseptic jungle of brittle-looking shrubs and bushes. Two well-dressed, middle-aged men with matching bald heads and mutual affectation of professional serenity sat at the desk, staring into the shrubbery as though it contained the threat of a creeping indigenous militia. The new girl ushered us into an elevator. “This elevator is specular,” she said, “listen to the music.” The elevator was playing Mason Williams’ Classical Gas, so we yo-yoed up and down a couple of times, the girls attempting a rudimentary go-go dance, while James and I did our best to avoid their failing limbs. The next track the elevator played was Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues, but the song’s mood of laden, almost cosmic eroticism seemed to bore the girls, so we finally made our way to the apartment.
The party was everything, I think, we could have hoped for: a feast for anthropologists of the near future; a carnival of vacuous delights and strange delusions of threadbare grandeur. The apartment itself was dimly-lit, with small groups slumped everywhere in the deep trance of chemically-heightened sincerity and seriousness, spitting paragraphs back and forth like animals who feed their young by regurgitation. We passed briskly through these baying lotus-eaters, and went out onto the roof garden, where the main energy of the party was focused. A sound-system was playing a mixture of dance anthems and Bryan Ferry ballads (then enjoying a brief, semi-ironic vogue due to their inclusion in an innovative series of tampon advertisements). LED striplighting bathed the roof garden in a cool, blue sheen, making the revellers appear like holographic ghosts projected against the penthouse’s dizzying vistas of city and star light. We found a place at the fringes of the crowd, and the new girl went back into the apartment to find some glasses, but we didn’t see her again. I occupied myself breaking the crowd down into its constitute elements. There was a smattering of television personalities, their melodic voices emerging out of the white noise with the sickly familiarity of a favourite song travestied by pan-pipes. I saw the host of a popular household DIY programme, seated by himself in the throes of some kind of drug-induced panic attack. He was breathing deeply and evenly, and drinking pint glasses of water that seemed to flow directly out of his pores. Throughout the night, he would cyclically return to the festivities with a demonical second wind, leading each time to a relapse into his former condition, until he was finally laid out on a sofa with a small electrical fan positioned near his sweating temples. There was a gaggle of pretty young women whom I guessed to be occupants of the glittering and eternal limbo between modelling and acting careers. We saw two hulking, radioactively tanned beefcakes making gauche advances towards the women. The beefcakes were the stars of a type of programming which was very popular at the time – one of those shows that documented the peccadillos of a vulgar working class nouveau riche. (I’d seen them on television once, waxing an antique dealer’s scrotum and asshole as part of their weekly challenge. It was suspenseful enough, I thought, although the effect was largely achieved through clever musical cues and editing.) There was a small contingency of older, middle-aged men at the party, a group of property speculators and lawyers whose cold, dead eyes were trained on the younger women, making rapid, intuitive calculations of their blood-alcohol levels. They were talking to a telegenic economist who would find far greater fame after the crash. (I overheard a snippet of the conversation: “That’s the thing, nobody knows Sheldrake! Nobody’s ever even seen him! He could be just a name on a piece of paper for all anybody knows.”) The festivities jumped to an even higher plateau of boisterous vitality with the sudden arrival of the aging and fearsome comedienne Maxi Mediumwave, fresh from performance in a children’s pantomime downtown. Maxi burst onto the roof garden still in character and full costume – a black-hearted pirate queen with cutlass and ersatz parrot lolling on her shoulder - accompanied by a retinue of garrulous dames and ebullient, exotic male dancers who hung beneath her jutting chin like a gaudy necklace. Even Roger Grady – clad in a sports jacket and blue jean combo which I felt was frankly beneath him - appeared notably energised by this spectacular entrance.
Although the other party-goers were inclined to ignore us for the most part, we were nevertheless able to absorb something of the drift of their conversation. There were many whispers swirling around regarding the fortunes of the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter itself. The funding for the project was only then beginning to unravel into a labyrinthine paper trail of loans whose securities transpired to be other loans whose securities then echoed recursively into infinite spirals of nothingness. The main item of gossip that thrilled through the roof garden that night, however, was the most recent high profile tenants rumoured to have purchased an apartment in the Quarter: identicals Bradley and Lucius O’Leary, known in the pop world as the Iguana Twins. The Iguana Twins were the latest sensation to emerge from television’s talent furnace Idol Assembly Line, having scored an unexpected Christmas number 1 with their auto-tuned reggae travesty of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Cultural theorists argued that there was an insoluble explanatory gap surrounding the Iguana Twin phenomenon. Children and young teenagers adored them, but nobody old enough to articulate their thoughts cogently could even begin to understand the appeal; hence the Twins operated in a realm which could never be adequately quantified by the adult brain. Most adults chose to regard them as an alarming manifestation of sociological decadence and creeping mental atrophy, while others suggested that they might in fact represent a new species of mutant genius, whose brilliance vibrated at some higher frequency to which adults no longer had access. Androgynous, with handsome, gaunt, sepulchral features, the Twins seemed to embody the indecipherable sexuality of some future epoch. They frequently wore contact lenses that turned their pupils blood-red, a gimmick which gave them the aura of a pair of ailing, homesick extraterrestrials. They spoke in a strange, insular stream of consciousness which often descended into a fully-blown nonsense language of their own invention: Shally Shindig, Cassa Zoom Boom! was a well-known expression of triumph in their private argot. They were, however, master manipulators of Noosfeed. In one of their most ingenious capers, they posted a sinister-looking close-up to their Noosfeed page, with the caption WHICH ONE OF US IS THE BAD ONE? This provoked a furious debate amongst the cognoscenti which was still on-going. Naturally, exotic Noosphere rumours swirled around the Iguanas, ranging from the easily falsifiable (that they weren’t really twins, but rather a pair of genetically unrelated narcissists who‘d augmented an existing resemblance with cutting edge surgical techniques emanating out of the Balkan region) to the more speculative and elusive (that they were part of an ET acclimatization programme, designed to gradually make the public comfortable with the appearance and presence of extraterrestrials, or, alternatively, to lay the groundwork for an imminent programme of clandestine inter-breeding.)
We didn’t stay too long at the party that night. We were really only there as anthropological voyeurs, our intention being to sneer inwardly at the worthies as they sneered outwardly at us. As fascinating as the spectacle was to contemplate, the atmosphere only became more oppressively manic and unfriendly as the night wore on. Two events, however, remain etched in my memory, and are worth briefly noting. The first was a rather unpleasant imbroglio which erupted between the two beefcakes. Excluded from whatever supply of low-quality cocaine was circulating freely among the inner circle, they had responded by becoming balefully drunk. One minute, they were engaged in a slurred, incoherent argument, the next lunging at one-another with explosive ferocity. Before anybody knew what was happening, they were rolling around on the ground in a powder-keg clinch, laying waste to Grady’s avant-garde outdoor furniture. Everybody seemed more amused than alarmed, however, and the girls eagerly filmed the action on their phones. Any doubts that the videos would become a minor sensation on Noosfeed were immediately vanquished when a seething Maxi Mediumwave threw herself into the fray, jumping atop the beefcakes and making a very valiant attempt to pry them apart. This peculiar struggle continued unabated until Mediumwave’s parrot was decapitated under the weight of one of the beefcake’s shoulders. “Look what you’ve done!” she shrieked, her face suddenly like a mirror cracking in slow motion. The desecration of the rubbery bird shocked the two brawlers into sobriety and contrition; I think I saw a tear streaking down one of their cheeks, but I could have been mistaken. The situation very rapidly diffused itself after that. Mediumwave’s coterie flocked around her, and commenced an apparently familiar ritual of coaxing her febrile nervous system back to some kind of equilibrium. The beefcakes apologized profusely to Grady, who seemed to regard the whole incident with a blasé, amused glint in his eyes.
While this first incident was ultimately comical in nature, the second I recall as having something sinister or even portentous about it, although I cannot quite put my finger on the source of this impression. There was a sudden flurry of excitement at the border of the roof garden, where a group of girls were looking over the edge, and pointing excitedly at the opposite tower. The crowd surged over to the glass balcony walls, following their frantic directions. Standing on an opposite balcony some eight or nine storeys down was the unmistakable shape of the Iguana Twins. The rumours were true. The first twin stood erect with his hands on his hips, and the body of the second was set at a peculiar slant, as though he were about to fall over, or take off at a sprint. There seemed to be no motion whatsoever in either of them. They wore matching white outfits, and their faces, though heavily shadowed, appeared blank and expressionless. Despite the distance, their red eyes shone very brightly, looking like the eyes of a fox startled in the flash of an old Polaroid camera. The apartment was dimly lit and the light had an eerie quality which suggested some kind of cold-storage facility. Everybody waved, and the model/actresses called down Shally Shindig, Cassa Zoom Boom! and other Iguana nonsense at the top of their lungs, but the Twins retained their unearthly poise. They seemed to be presenting themselves as an object of contemplation, as some kind of ambiguous Yin/Yang symbol; then they jerked briskly awake, and strolled back into the soft, ultraviolent light of their apartment like disinterested gods. I felt somebody nudge my shoulder gently. It was one of the lithe dancers from Maxi Mediumwave’s coterie, wearing an uncharacteristically solemn expression. “Which one do you think is the bad one?” he whispered. “Lucius,” I replied instantly, with an odd sort of conviction that came out of nowhere.
We left shortly after that. The elevator, as though receptive to the mood’s downward turn, was playing Procal Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. We appeared ghostly and insubstantial in comparison to our ascent, and the song’s lyrics reflected the wispy, enigmatic impressions that were gathering in our minds, struggling to cohere. In the taxi home, we were mostly silent. As she neared her stop, Esther nudged me. She produced something from her bag, and held it up to the light so I could see it. It was the head of Maxi Mediumwave’s parrot, whose passing was destined for brief Noosfeed notoriety in the days to follow. Separated from its body, the parrot’s features were more lifelike and conspiratorial than before. “You’d think it was going to speak,” Esther said, smiling.
Image of Toronto condo towers found here.