Between the rain and the snow falls a far less romantic form of precipitation, the hail, which as I write, pelts my bedroom window like milk-teeth. This type of metaphor, the chronic similes of a cheap literature, would normally seem gratuitous even to me. After all, it is only the weather. Even to me it seems excessive, this fiction of children’s teeth falling biblically from the sky, even to me, who persists in attaching to every source of light the image of a knife, to the six sides of a book, the anatomy of a frightened animal. There are all sorts of names in all sorts of tongues for this type of writing. In Austria, for example, they call a thick section of this cheap literature Schinken – a slab of pig meat. As though the codex itself – victim of its own internal logic, the logic of signs, symbols, and fictions it enfolds – were quite literarily turned inside out, its matter becoming metaphor. Pig meat, the unclean, a violation of sacred dietary laws, a kind of Haram, or contravention of Kashrut, something thick and dark and hidden in the fibers of its flesh. A prohibition. The sacred sanitary line between fiction and the real, between a simile of children’s teeth and the reality of weather, between the pulp and dull stuff of the book’s reality, the one I hold between the ten digits of my hands, and the fictions this dull stuff is meant to bind and isolate from the rest of the real, from the world of flesh and five-digit hands. This metaphor, this excess of language, the sort of pathos you get on the news, the nightmare of children’s teeth showering a pain of glass, seems irresistible to me now, because the line has been crossed, and is crossed daily, crossed to the point of its erasure, to the point where I wonder if this line isn’t itself a fiction.
When I sent you my first article, you expressed doubts about the introductory paragraph where I related fragments of French current affairs, this in light, you said, of its apparent incoherence with the rest of my narrative. But also, you said, and more importantly perhaps, because of more recent events in Paris, occurring some weeks after I had written this piece, after I had taken myself and my passport back to Berlin. Believing the two crazed motorists to be of my own invention, and perhaps seeing some prophetic coincidence in what you believed was a fiction, you warned me. Tread lightly, you said, by which, I suppose, you meant the sacred fiction, the line not to be crossed. But it is not I who crosses it, they were not an invention, and if they foretold anything, they did it of themselves. This schizophrenia of narrative, this indiscernible limit between cinema and the world, fiction and the news, a metaphor and its victim, is rich in its own sinuous logic, and I could swear to its coherence on a stack of bibles. There is a government of mimesis that rules over this domain of the schizoid, where not only is the news taken as a fabrication of language, but where ostensibly fictional characters become forces of real-world intervention, where men with wet tongues in their mouths, in the name of one image or its taboo, will die to assassinate a page, leaving a cartoon to bleed real blood on the streets of the city. The book in the beginning as though open on a page of horrors. This is the kingdom I see when I open an episode of T.O.T.T. Here, the page has become as dense and opaque as a man. Alice’s rabbit-hole ends with a psychiatric ward, her blue dress is exchanged for a straitjacket, and her wonderland, for a padded cell. Here, the question as to who framed Roger Rabbit is taken with all the seriousness of a post-mortem examination. It will fill the bookshelves of jurists. It will lead the private detective down murderous alleys, and in their dark chambers occupy the philosopher and the mystic. A schizophrenia of the world where the line between fiction and the real is crossed with as much ease as the eye moves from verso across to recto.
(Berlin, January 9th, 2015)
Consider the one to whom it is addressed. For the one to whom it is addressed the nature of any postal delivery narrative is to abbreviate the arch of its intrigue. A blank script, the mystery begins and ends with a package lying on his kitchen table, a short note that simply says ‘this arrived for you from France today’. And yet, as he sits by his window, as he tears the seal and relieves the merchandise of its cardboard womb, a vague anxiety, the suspicion and tense precaution of a child after his first paper cut, moves through him like sap up the fibers of a tree. He postpones breaking the caul of cellophane and instead begins to measure the volume against the edge of a ruler. 23.5cm x 16.5cm x 2.5cm. In hand it weighs enough, that if he could catch the victim off guard . . . Though the above measurements would put the volume in the octavo range, more typical of a magazine, the cover design – its pale red and stale blue type emphasizing a space otherwise dominated by the darkness of a black-and-white photograph or movie still – nostalgically reconstructs a classic hardboiled paperback, thus deliberately placing the object in the figments of a dead and imagined world. His fingers exchange one side of the blunt object for another, from red back to red spine and back again to the book’s three edges, phonebook-yellow, surreal, recalling, in bright yellow light, the golden-edges of an illuminated bible, the slant of an unclosed door. A book of fiction and fiction of the book, a cartoon drawn into the world, as though you yourself were a fiction, as though it could only be opened by a pair of four-fingered hands.
His ears start ringing.
A yellow afterimage flashes and lingers on his retina, a gash of light staining everything with its slant. But past it, there in the cover’s background, emerging from the darkened corner of a room, the S of a woman’s hips, mimicking the smoke of a cigarette, leans on the side of a darkened door, her eyes like a loaded gun. His thoughts, the reader’s, are snagged on the slant of yellow light, but prompted by her eyes, he continues downwards, past the meeting of the her breasts, gestured on by the motions of an invisible knife. Foregrounded between two thumbs, the whole lower half of the cellophane screen is taken up by a man’s mute expression, a white open collar, eyes jerked back, a necktie roughly noosed around his neck, the entire scene cut meticulously from the dark. The man looks ambushed, a frightened deer caught in a set of headlights. In a fit, the man has covered something up, hidden something, closed the lid on something – a corpse, a gun, a stack of bills . . . – something has vanished in the empty space below the book. But in this empty space below book there is only the reader’s lap, his desk, a wall, and now the wooden floor of the reader’s room. Where the world begins and the codex disappears, there is only the bright yellow aperture of the volume’s pages, the 2.5cm crack of an unclosed door, the diameter of the human eyeball – opening for a third line of sight, his own wet eye.
His ears are ringing.
His ears are ringing. As he picks at the plastic seam, slides his index beneath the cellophane and along the paper’s edge, he slides inwards, into the dark sulcuses of his brain. Held out in its limitless black-open palm, night offers up a single white pill, and with the city’s curtains shut, the street-signs blank, he finds himself walking the empty avenues of obscure hypotheses and dimly lit theories, called somewhere by the insistent ringing of a remote public telephone. Ring-Ring. At the dead end of one of these streets, a pillar of yellow light glows against the darkness of the night, and like a bush burning in the wilderness, it rings and rings waiting to be answered. But as he stands before the phone booth’s glowing accordion door, ready to take the step, ready to push his weight out of the dark and into the glowing yellow light, suddenly the ringing stops.
He opens his eyes. But still seized by the outer appearance of the book, and the thick darkness it enfolds, he postpones the parting of its leaves. Ambushed between two lines of sight, the cover’s main character – a traveling sales rep, insurance man, accountant, or paper merchant – is keeping something – a name, a number – something hidden beneath his tongue. An unknown x is flashing yellow at the peripheries of the reader’s vision, gluing him to something both inside and outside the book, something that implicates him with the other two sets of eyes. For them too it is flashing, a sinuous something that slides between intervals of the real and the imagined, the thing and its fiction, the closed book and an unclosed world. Its secret hinging on an agent of metaphor that hides itself somewhere, in there, between tightly packed intervals of yellow.
So he arranges the three sets of vision – including his own – into an order of lies and complicities.
A: He and the woman against the man.
B: He and the man against the woman.
C: Complicity of the man and the woman against him.
D: . . .
The woman’s eyes were the first to address him. They welcomed him into the curves of her hips, the gentle slopes of her breasts. But that dress, that lipstick, a title conspiring against her . . . a hell of a woman. He discards A in exchange for B, the man is turned to him; it is he who is, or was, ready to open, ready to uncover. And yet it may be that the man’s tongue is suspended between one lie and another. The lie of relation B and the lie of relation C. Impossible to tell. Deflated, he sighs and rubs his knuckles white into the canthuses of his eyes.
Under a heavily lidded sky, the phone booth stands in darkness like the first illuminated character of an absent text, encasing him with the telephone’s immaculate receiver. Cold and black, it lies silently on its hook. Beneath it, a fleshy volume of the Yellow Pages is spread out for him like a bit of old testament on the names of sun gods, Surya, Ra, and Helios, selling goods of wrath and joy. Below, an ad for ‘yellow movies’, Chinatown skin flicks, the number of a Russian insane asylum, ‘the yellow house’. ‘Do you suffer from Pestilence, Malaria, or Jaundice?’ and further down ‘Sick of those yellow teeth?’ The nail of his index continues to scroll the page – a Mrs. Foxglove, a Dr. Gelbfrosch . . . – but something snags his eye, something buried deep between the first leaf and the next. The jagged remnant of another page torn out. A missing number.
Opening his eyes, he sees the man – the paper merchant . . . – speechless, as when he left him. The mute surprise of the man’s mouth is not an accident of narrative picked out at random. The cover bears the paradigm for a work that has chosen not to illustrate words but the silence that precedes them, the profounder silence of the book’s spine, where, open as the mouths of stunned witnesses, words are lost. Ott’s relationship to language has always taken place as though looking in on a phone conversation cut off from the viewer by a door of glass. Nothing was ever known of the voice on the other end. There was intimacy of white teeth and a black receiver, but lips moved without sound, words gave way to the meat of a tongue.
But now there’s a worm. If, as he believed, or wanted to believe, Ott’s images were flashes of an illiterate book, visions of the deaf, and thus indifferent to linguistic boarders, why was this object being detained within the limits of a Francophone market? Why this need for postmen? Had his images learned to read, to speak? Were they now writing letters, now trafficking foreign tongues? D: Complicity of the image against the reader. Possible addition of a further E and F.
On the other side of the torn page, below surgical supplies – ‘prices slashed on Betadine and Iodine’ – the phonebook reads ‘Inks for sale’, ‘Poisons for sale’, advertised by one and the same company. A little cramped, dreaming of an absent phone number, the city still as a world of salt, he wonders how much cadmium or lead it would take to poison a man. How many copies of Hell of a Woman to poison even the smallest dwarf or child? Rotating awkwardly towards the door, he exits the pillar of warm yellow light, and as he is greeted into a cold depression of air, again, suddenly, the ringing starts. Glancing back at the receiver, he slides into a murder fantasy where the book, and with it the poisonous yellow pigment of its pages – phylobates terrabilis flashes in his brain – was dipped in the victim’s tea – ‘Death by recent publication’. No, ‘Dead due to recent publication’. No, ‘Mysterious heart attack after . . .’ a series of headlines flashing in his brain. Leave it, he mutters, whoever it is is laughing at you.
Exchanging one armrest for another, he opens his eyes, his wicker chair squeaking nervously beneath his weight. He had desired a book where the smell of glue might itself feature in the narrative of its pages. He had looked forward to a volume unmediated by sound, to a grave illustration of the tome, to holding the minute’s silence of a black page between his thumbs . . . Silence was the condition of this perfect, illiterate book. But now, at last resolved, he discards its transparent film, splits the volume in two, and opens the yellow wound, the paper whispering beneath his thumb, sighing into a cinematic blur of black and white. As he pauses it at a page, suddenly it opens like a pair of seagulls wings, crying out with letters, a patient suddenly rising on the surgeon’s table, a world of sound waking from its anesthetic. From under a silent cover, two distinct casts of characters, text and image, sound and silence, lie next to each other in photographic negative, black on white and white on black, their lack of color emphasized by the yellow of an insistent metaphor, which flashes and then vanishes into the blur as pages play beneath his thumb. Staring back at the closed cover, he thinks he has solved the man’s expression of mute surprise. It seemed to disclose a lie, but who was the man cheating? He wasn’t withholding from the woman’s eyes – no, in a conspiracy of editors, shop assistants and postmen, the reader had been lied to by a book, a broken spine marking a broken vow. There, spread out in front of him was the transcript of a telephone conversation that seemed to despoil T.O.T.T’s images of their silence.
There, as though torturing a false statement of phonetic values, was Thompson’s text. A French translation, a double betrayal.
His ears are ringing.
With the phone ringing in his back, a cold breeze caresses the inside of his leg, and with lips moving up his neck, combs a vision through his hair. On the opposite pavement he observes a figment of current affairs, a nocturnal caricature silhouetted at intervals of night and lamplight. The shadow of Snoopy in scarf and fedora hat sliding into darkness, then appearing and disappearing, at intervals of a beating heart, beneath the willows of yellow light . . .
Once again in desk-light, deflated, he opens at the brouhaha of the book’s first words – Thompson’s, with Ott’s illustrations inserted here and there like postage stamps or the historiated characters of an illuminated book. But his eyes try to flee from sound, drift into a bored dyslexia where instead of progressing from left to right, characters organize themselves across both axes of the paper. For a moment, the vague fantasy that this scattering of the alphabet might itself encrypt a silent image floats above the page, only to dissipate again into clouds of patterns without shape, vacuumed into the space where verso and recto meet to vanish at the spine. Is it that a form of substance abuse, metaphors of glue and ink, have turned the book inside out and drawn the pulp and dull stuff of reality by which the book is, is hard and real, and is and is really there, there on his desk – he could swear to it on a stack of bibles – into a schizoid realm? There, closed on his desk, it seems to snicker at him like a simile of yellow teeth.
His ears are ringing.
The night continues to offer up its pill, and beneath it, contemplating the pavement, as though writing an obituary in his brain, Snoopy is arched under the gravity of goodbyes. He walks, disappearing and reappearing, before vanishing from La Rue Nicolas-Appert into the darkness of l’Allée Verte. Behind him, further up the street, the humans have gathered on the pavement under another pool of light. Held in a circle by a strip of yellow and black police tape, they stand with flowers and votive candles around the contours of a little white character of chalk. It outlines the blank silhouette of a little boy, whose body now rests in a Paris morgue. The remains: a single coil of hair, the once anxious eyes of a nervous disposition now drawn shut, a yellow-and-black-zigzagged shirt now stained with blood, and around his little toe, a postmortem tag that reads: A Boy Named Charlie Brown. The ringing in his back grows weaker. A train is approaching overhead.
These could have been visions of T.O.T.T. He remembers Bugs Bunny’s anatomy laid out on the psychopath’s floor, the dry eyes of Alice in the padded cell of her yellow house, buckled in her straightjacket (see R.I.P: Best of 1985-2004), the meticulously embodied freaks of a world in which mad men draw cartoons into the realms of the living, where the humans are and live, are real and have there being, and could swear to it on a stack of bibles.
His ears are ringing.
Loose fallen leaves move about his feet, and as he stares back over his shoulder, back at the yellow pillar and the telephone ringing on its hook, suddenly a train roars above his head. Witnesses who saw say the two men who murdered the little boy cried, ‘Charlie’s dead! God is great!’ A train is roaring above his head as though trying to overtake his thoughts, shuffling for a moment the rows of unbound leaves that line the street. News updates say Charlie’s assassins have fled in a Peugeot 206, their goal a small town on the outskirts of Paris named Dammartin. How like a movie the city must appear from a moving train. At a printing press on the outskirts of Paris, Charlie’s assassins take a hostage and await their appointment with the forces of heavily armed French police. Aboard a roaring train, as though in a déjà vu, an expat is being handed back his one-way ticket and his identity – inspectors found nothing in his suitcase or on his person. Outside the printing press in Dammartin, black boots are squeaking, bullets are being clicked into their magazines, guns are being cocked. In the train, under the night’s white pill, the little expat slouches back into his window seat, breathes in a moment, breathes out. Beside him a little fedora hat. Two men assassinate a page and now wait for death at a printing press in Dammartin, and it is doubtful, say the newsprints, whether they will live long enough to explain the choice of venue, halls and corridors stacked with the mute white pillars of unnumbered sheets, patiently awaiting the silent presses. Turning away from the melancholy film passing before his window, the expat shuts his eyes, but instead of darkness, in a mystical contraction of the iris beneath his lids, sees in pages, mute and white, stacked up in a monumental ring of columns, the blank-bright image of an absentee, withdrawing, unbound, into the endless silence of unbroken vows. The inspectors’ search was thorough, but came up with nothing. Nothing suspicious, they said. Except maybe for the three unopened copies of a strange-looking book buried among the expat’s clothes. A fact they would report only much later, after it was too late.