Flogging A Dead Irishman
Another rejection. Thank you for this opportunity, regret to say not suitable blah blah blah. Try another publication.
Jesus, doesn’t anybody read proper stories any more? I thought I’d cracked it this time. Wrote about the time I smuggled a bunch of Mexican workers into the USA. Good stuff; punchy prose, lots of active voice, short on adjectives and adverbs, long on powerful verbs. It was a nice little action piece about how we made it over the line in the old van, then gunned it into the desert to get away from the US authorities. Driving without lights through sagebrush and cactus at a hundred kilometres an hour, drinking savage Mexican tequila and singing revolutionary songs at the top of our voices. I even worked a great theme into it with a fictional coda in which I went back and did it again supposedly for the money but really for the thrill, only this time I got caught. You know: doing it for the principle of the thing was good and true, but doing it to court danger for self-aggrandizement was a disaster. A thing like that, you’d think they’d lap it up.
Mick is plucking nostril hairs, one by one. I can see him through the half-open door to the bathroom, which is painted jaundice yellow at the whim of our Mediterranean-born landlord. Mick’s hair is sandy and wiry. The nostril hairs in particular seem to trouble him. He is plucking them with a set of scissor-like tweezers, resembling those pointless round-ended devices they always made us cut and paste with in first grade. One by one, he plucks them, wincing with each twitch of his hand. Shakes them loose into the sink. Will he wash them away? I hope so. The sight of the drain clogged with wiry, sandy little hairs is infinitely depressing to me.
Occasionally, I have to pluck my own nostril hairs, when they grow too long and interact ticklishly with my moustache. I don’t indulge in the kind of plucking orgies that Mick does, though. When I find a rogue hair, I simply and discreetly turn away from prying eyes, lock it between the nail of my forefinger and my thumb, and yank. The pain is momentary, although eye-watering, and the relief from the ticklishness up my nose is indescribable.
Mick catches sight of my face in the bathroom mirror, and straightens up quickly. “What are you looking at?” he snarls.
“Nothing,” I tell him. “I’m writing a story. Or trying to, anyway.”
“Waste of time,” he grunts. “Nobody ever publishes your shit. Why don’t you just give up and get a real job?”
He kicks the door shut with his heel. The gesture is futile, as the catch is broken and in our shabby Fairfield flat, the angle at which the door has been hung is sufficiently off-kilter to swing it back to its original half-open state. Could this be why neither of us has been very successful with women lately? Possibly they are subtly alarmed by the state of our bathroom door, thinking perhaps that we are voyeurs or perverts of some sort. I don’t know about Mick, of course, but I’m not a pervert. I quite like surreptitiously using my line of sight to the bathroom mirror to watch his occasional guests as they undress and shower, but I have never even tried to catch one of them on the toilet. That would definitely be perverted.
Hemingway did that kind of thing. Hairy-chested, manly stuff involving heavy moral themes hiding behind engaging action sequences. Like a depth charge, so that while you were enjoying the descriptions of bullfights and trout fishing he was sneaking up on you with a mean bastard of an idea. Hemingway wrote dozens of short stories. Collections of them. They’re still in print. Still being bought, too. People like Hemingway’s stories enough to keep reading them.
So where’s Hemingway now?
There’s no more Hemingway stories happening. What they want now, the few magazines that still take short stuff, it’s all post-modernist quasi-ethnic gender angst recycled endlessly through present-tense narratives chopped up at random and redistributed like carrots in a drunken spew. Who’s going to collect that? Who’s going to be reading this stuff in fifty or eighty years? You can’t write like Hemingway today. Things happen in Hemingway stories. Men get punched. Bulls die. People get hurt. If you want to get published now, the first rule is that in your stories, nothing should happen except meaningless trivia, the point being that meaningless trivia is what most people have for a life and we should somehow celebrate and find meaning in that. This is what we have become, we writers of the 21st century: chroniclers and aggrandizers of suburban banality. T S Eliot would laugh until he shit.
Mick sings in the bathroom. Off-key, masked by the sounds of falling water, I can still recognize the immortal strains of Candle In The Wind. Neither of us actually likes Elton John or his music, but that particular song has had a lot of airplay lately. It’s hard to avoid.
I wonder if my dislike of Elton John is really about his boring music and his awful costumes, or is it in fact repressed homophobia? I don’t think I hate gays. I’ve got several gay friends, and a few more whom I’ve never asked but who are almost certainly gay, and it doesn’t really matter at all to me. At least, I think it doesn’t.
It’s hard to tell anymore. When I was in high school, we all hated poofters because that’s what you did if you weren’t a poofter, and God knows none of us were poofters. But then we all went to University, and after six months, none of us hated poofters any more. Except when we were watching the Kiwis beat us at Rugby, the poofters. A year after we reached University, it turned out that several of us actually were poofters. Six months after that, they’d been poofters all along except that now they were gay, and nobody said ‘poofter’ any more, not even when the Kiwis won the World Cup.
Are there still any poofters out there? Were there ever any poofters, or were they always just plain queer? What kind of a weird word is poofter anyway? Poofter. Poofter. Poofter. Look at it — ridiculous bloody thing.
I’m not getting a lot of writing done here.
What I mean is this: I read this story, the writer talks about watching the LA riots on TV. Uses them as some kind of a metaphor for her own crankiness over being kept to a ten PM curfew when she was sixteen, youngest daughter in a Melbourne Greek household full of boisterous boys. Watching the LA riots is a kind of vicarious catharsis for her, the pissed-off black Americans doing all the things she’d like to do, but never does. What happens in this story? She washes the dishes harder. A plate breaks. She goes to her room, sobbing.
Fuck me. What would she say if I told her I was there during the riots? Drunk as hell with a couple of good Aussie lads in a hostel in Venice Beach, trying to stay clear of our roommates — an Alabama crackerboy with a KKK membership card and, of all things, an ex-cop from the Johannesburg Riot Squad? There was nothing vicarious about LA for me and my mates. We stole a van the first chance we got, dodged the cops and the National Guard until we got to the coast road for San Francisco.
I probably couldn’t publish that one, either. Although maybe if I wrote about trying unsuccessfully to pass a bowel movement while listening to Radio National talk about the LA riots, I might get a look-in. The unsuccessful bowel movement becoming a metaphor for the struggle for black freedom in a constipated white society. Could be something in that. Can I fit haemorrhoids in there somewhere, I wonder?
Mick emerges from the bathroom in his boxer shorts with the little clocks on them, towelling his hair. (I didn’t watch him shower. I never do. I’m afraid that if I caught sight of his penis, I would see that it is larger than mine. That would be deeply depressing.)
“What are you writing about?” he says, picking up a cup half-full of tepid coffee and checking it for dead insects.
“I’m not sure yet.” I hover my fingers confidently above the keyboard of my little computer, as though expecting inspiration at any moment. In the kitchen, the radio plays Candle In The Wind again, as it has every hour for the last forty-eight hours. It’s ten years to the day since the princess died in a nasty accident. “Maybe I’ll write about my ambivalence to Diana’s death.”
“Yeah, good,” says Mick. Evidently the coffee is bug-free. He tips the cup to the dirty plaster ceiling and drains the dregs. “You gonna be up late?”
Ah, the real question. Mick must have a hot prospect this evening. He’s trying to find out whether I’ll be here to queer the pitch when he brings her home to his swinging bachelor pad.
“Depends on how the story goes,” I tell him. “I’d like to get through the first draft quickly, but I’m not sure how to convey the alienation of a man who doesn’t think she was some kind of saint. I mean, at this point in time each of us is practically defined by our response to the death of this woman, and that is a unique historical perspective — and yet, in the broader context it is ultimately meaningless. Only by examining ourselves in this moment through the means of art, such as narrative, can we hope to impose some kind of order and value on the times. If we fail to do that, then truly, our lives are as trivial and pointless as they seem — and who can live with such knowledge?”
Mick stares at me for a long moment. “You’ve been reading Sartre again, haven’t you?”
Sense of humour. That’s another thing missing from these fucking stories. Somerset Maugham is another bloke whose collections of stories are still being read, still being sold. Lots of humour in his stories; beautiful, subtle, ironic, self-deprecating English humour. And what about the wicked black irony of Saki? Hell, even Joyce, who started all this present-tense stream-of-consciousness glory-to-the-trivial shite with Ulysses — even Joyce had a sense of humour. Though you wouldn’t know it to read his short stuff. You know, it’s a tossup as to who wrote more boring short stories, Jimmy Joyce or Ginny Woolf. More boring. Boringer? Nah. Definitely more boring.
I reckon it was Woolf. But Jimmy got a bigger wrap for it, and raised it to the nth degree in Ulysses. Great novel, Ulysses. Five times I’ve tried to read it. Won’t catch me doing that with a book that isn’t great. Of course, I never got past the bit in the tower at the beginning, with all that crap about rent and swimming in the ocean. Every time, the book has disappeared. Somebody out there loves Ulysses a lot. So much that they won’t let me keep a copy long enough to finish reading the fucking thing. Never mind. I’ll buy a sixth copy next time I see it secondhand. Or no I won’t — I’ll flog it from some other bastard, brighten his day a little.
“No. Somebody nicked my copy of Nausea again. How can I be expected to finish one of the seminal works of 20th Century philosophy if somebody keeps stealing the book?”
“Six months, and you hadn’t finished the first chapter.” Mick looks at me accusingly.
I raise my hands, palms to the ceiling. “The implications were staggering. I needed time to assimilate them.”
Mick puts down the cup. “Whatever. Look, I reckon I’ll be back about one. Tom set me up with this woman he knows. Says she’s a dead cert. Ten bucks if you’re in bed with the door shut when I get home.”
“Thirty.” He’s let Tom set him up? Tom only knows insane women. Mick must really be desperate.
“Twenty.” He holds out a single red note.
I reach for it, but a rush of uncharacteristic honesty catches me off guard. “Keep it. I still owe you twenty for going out to the movies when I brought Kerryn home last Friday.”
“That’s right,” he says, and folds the bill away. “How did that go, anyway?”
I lie fluently and prolifically. He nods as though he believes every word.
So what have they got, these gutless pieces of post-modern arse-wiping? Let’s see. I’ve covered non-linear narrative structure, angst, gender, ethnicity, media references, angst, first-person present-tense POV (which really helps the non-linear narrative structure sod up any sense of continuity or development for the reader) meaningless trivia and angst. There’s got to be more. Alienation. What about alienation? Oh, and that lack of sense of humour which is really more than just a lack. It’s a positive glut of deadly academic seriousness, the sort of absolute conviction about the universal fascination of the subject matter which is usually found only in middle-aged, balding professors of Marxist literary criticism. There isn’t even a sense of irony on show, as they write about toenail clipping and ear piercing with the apparent belief that for just such things did Shakespeare and Donne and Byron and Shelley (Mary, that is. Percy was a boring fart.) deliver unto us modern scribes a heritage of incomparable literary power and grandeur.
Oh, I remember something else now. Gratuitous sex sequences. But never graphic enough to capture anybody’s interest. And never sex which actually sates and delights the characters. Just morbid, flabby, trivial sex glossed over in half a paragraph of slightly prudish prose. Do people really have sex that way? Doesn’t anybody actually enjoy hot, wet, growling sex any more? No bloody wonder the birth rate is declining. Post-modernist sex sounds about exciting as Hansard.
Once he is gone, I turn my attention to the problem at hand. I lied about more than just earth-shattering fellatio from Kerryn: I also lied about having any ideas at all for a story. The anniversary of the death of Diana has completely failed to move me, except to annoyance at the amount of media space dedicated to her pampered, ultimately trivial existence and her monumentally bourgeois death. (Also at the number of times I’ve been forced to hear Candle In The Wind lately. Elton John must be crying all the way to the bank.) I would like to write about how isolated I feel in my disinterest — about how my very lack of interest in the event marks me, separates me from my fellow man, makes a virtual monster of me in the eyes of the world. But how can you write a story about lack of interest? Wouldn’t it be tedious to the point of nausea? Who would want to read a thing like that?
Besides, inventing erotic adventures with Kerryn has left me vaguely aroused and unsatisfied. I can write later.
I call my penis “Jimmy”. I have no idea why. Perhaps it comes from the old rhyming slang: Jimmy Riddle — piddle. In any case, Jimmy seems a perfectly good name for a penis.
Jimmy and I have a tempestuous relationship. His demands are considerable, and there are very few volunteers in the constant struggle to keep him quiet. The greater part of the battle I must carry out on my own, aided only by the voluptuous employees of certain websites. One of which I call up on my computer minutes after I hear Mick’s car pull out of the drive. I flick through the galleries until I find my favourite, but tonight, somehow, the experience seems inadequate. After a moment’s contemplation, I tuck Jimmy away and dart back out into the lounge room, where someone has left a copy of New Idea magazine…
So, okay. Now I’ve got a list. I can do this. I can write like this if I have to. Just a few pieces. Enough to build up a bit of a folio, convince a few more editors that I’ve got what it takes. I can do this. Of course, I’m middle-class And male. And as for any kind of ethnicity, God help me, I was born in the USA. Mind you, my parents did get divorced. I could whine about that all night, if it would help. I could interrelate my parents breakup with some piece of pointless triviality I was doing when Princess Diana died. Turn it all into a metaphor for — for something, anyway.
No. I can’t do this. I was wrong. I can’t even remember what I was doing when Diana auditioned for the Crash Test Dummies. I don’t bloody care, either. In fact, I only remember what year it was because the radio people keep banging on about it. “People’s Princess” my hairy arse. Up the republic! I can’t write this shit. My life hasn’t been sufficiently trivial or dissatisfied to find meaning in plucking nostril hairs or contemplating liposuction. To hell with this. Maybe Mills and Boon need another writer, eh? At least they pay well. I’ll become the new Barbara Cartland, and somebody else can get on with flogging a dead Irishman.
Princess Diana looks out at me from the cover. Smiling, sultry, seductive temptress that she is. Together, Jimmy and I get into bed and, leafing through the glossy pages, commit a kind of sad, necrophiliac homage to the woman. Culminating in yet another stain on the duvet.
Maybe there’s a story in this somewhere.
AFTERWORD: There are indeed autobiographical elements to this piece. Mind you, there’s plenty of fiction too. The sentiment, however, is one hundred percent genuine. Have you tried to read literary short stories lately? If not, save yourself the trouble. Mix yourself a cocktail of ipecac, Ambien, and one of those really thick, cloyingly sweet liqueurs. You’ll get much the same effect.
Anyway. This isn’t speculative fiction, so the usual markets don’t apply. And I’ve yet to find a literary market with enough self-awareness and enough sense of irony to handle the satire in this piece… so here it is. I hope you have fun with it.