Mike Barnes and dg met years ago at The New Quarterly WILD WRITERS WE HAVE KNOWN CONFERENCE (see the famous 400-page double issue Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3) in Stratford. He appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories during the decade dg was editor (which tells you what dg thinks of his fiction). He is the author of numerous books—novels, story collections, a book of poems and a stunning memoir of his own struggle with psychosis The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. He writes occasional entries in a blog called 2009 which nowhere mentions his name. But if you go there you can find links to readings and talks he gave based on The Lily Pond, also gorgeous poems and photographs. What dg is printing here are three excerpts from a work-in-progress, a sneak preview of a dystopian future, not to be missed.
These excerpts are from a novel-in-progress, a future-fantasy about an ever-expanding world-hospital, or “medically based consumer imperium” as the resistance movement terms it. The world-hospital is part “real” (e.g. concrete and steel) architecture and part mass consensual hallucination. It is “total architecture.” The novel is a mosaic of dispatches sent by telepathic scribes, assembled by central collators in the aftermath of a disastrous battle between the resistance and the world-hospital. This phase of resistance—what happened? amid the wreckage—thus consists of attempts at accurate polyphonic reportage and archeology. The name in small letters below each dispatch is the moniker, or “scribesign,” of the scribe that submitted it. Sometimes multiple scribes collaborate on a dispatch. Two of the bits (“Mixer” and “Little People”), show the world-hospital’s furthest extension, beyond life itself, and feature the same character, for continuity, and the other (“Blowback”) is a short comic glance at the resistance movement.
Steve and Randy meet each other at a mixer for the newly dead. They went to the same high school but are a few moments placing each other before they break into grins of startled recognition.
So much has changed, so many reversals, in the passage across. Randy, a depressive back in the warm world, has taken to the après-vie like nobody’s business and is already doing well for himself. Steve, a doctor’s son who except for an ill-advised romance in his senior year has mostly had a blast, is having trouble finding his footing.
“It’s a whole new ballgame, Stevie,” says Randy, a shy stutterer so recently but now empowered by fluent clichés. “Look at me.” Steve is looking. “I used to have trouble carrying off a change of sweater and a haircut. Here, though. Here I’ve given myself a brand-new name and not one person has laughed. “I’m”—he hesitates a moment, a hiccup of life reflux; it’s little Randall Maggs for Chrissakes talking to SH the football captain—then declares confidently, “I’m Randy Raven.”
Steve doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t even feel like it. At first he heard razor, Randy Razor, and even that seemed possible. Doable. Like any good athlete, Steve is a fast study of the field, and he sees that Randy really can be anything here. He can stop the identity wheel on any slot he likes.
It reminds him of changing schools when none of your friends comes with you. You can carry on as before—the old game in a new location—or you can find yourself holding a brand new hand of cards, getting strange new urges to bluff, bet, fold. It’s not always symmetrical. Losers can win, winners lose, sometimes it’s a yawning steady-on, and there’s every sort of mix and halfway state.
In his new, bullet-spray voice, gaining confidence the way a rocket gains swerve and speed with altitude above the launching pad, Randy Raven disabuses Steve about any myths he may be clinging to about their present circumstances. Not about sin. Punishment. Purgatory. Not reward either. It really is an afterthought, a nowhere zone into which the fastest, sleaziest operators naturally move first and grab hold.
“Your dad. That hospital project with St. Bar-Laz. I’ve seen some pictures of it here.”
“Sure. The smart advertiser goes to where the clients will be, not where they are. Be there to greet them. Who knows what kinds of postcards they’ll send back.”
“Send back?” Steve’s head is whirling. All around the room he sees pairs of people in the orientation postures he and Randy have assumed: the leaner-in, the knower, crisp, assured; the dazed recipient, wobbly of stance and expression.
“It’s a two-way street, man.”
As Randy goes on rapping, his eyes lambent with the newfound pleasure of holding forth, Steve tries to distract himself with thoughts of unbuttoning Cathy’s blouse, but the well-worn grooves of erotic revery don’t work so well here, the fantasy feels tackily remote, its old allure now discordant—like memories of a piñata party in solitary—and Randy’s patter keeps breaking through, and by the time he’s unzipping Cathy’s Levi’s Steve is hardly even surprised by the hard-veined icy cock that springs into his hands.
“By the way”—Randy is smirking, the ghost of an Old-World Randall peephole- in-the-girls’-changeroom leer—“telepathy is the rule here. You have to learn to shut it down. I’ve almost nailed it. No one can show you. It’s a knack, like wiggling your ears.”
Randy fills Steve in on the basis of the afterlife as a credit scam and protection racket, a Ponzi/pyramid scheme on a vast scale of interlacing levels.
In a pause, Steve says, “I thought it would be, I don’t know…pure. Or something.” Now it’s his turn to pause as he realizes he had no opinions about the afterlife, he was 18 when he sailed his father’s Buick LeSabre off the mountain brow, the girl, Cathy, with her top off screaming beside him.
“Nothing pure about it, man. It’s the oldest and dirtiest neighborhood there is. No wonder Wardworld set up shop here. Stands to reason. It’s poorly regulated and mostly out of sight. Hell, not even many people believe in it anymore. That’s an added bonus.”
Steve doesn’t get the Wardworld reference, but there’s something else he needs to know first.
“What do I need protection for? I’m dead.”
“Which means you’ve lost your last line of defense. You’re like a snail evicted from its shell. And”—Randy leans close, lowers his voice—“the universe wears big boots.”
“What could happen to me?” The involuntary quaver in his voice used to be in Randall’s all the time.
“What couldn’t? If you can dream it up, it’s probably here. And if you can’t, it definitely is.”
Steve buys a basic protection plan from Randy with the only currency he’s got—time. 10,000 years to start, with a vig of 2% (“for a friend”). He’s soon in way over his head. The pyramid scheme is the usual bucket brigade of downhill pain. A guy tells you you’re on fire and hands you a bucket to put it out. But the bucket is the fire, and the only way to turn it into water is to hand it off to another sucker. On earth it ends with a bottom layer engulfed in flame, roasted alive. But with infinite time the wall of flame expands forever. Steve understands how it works, but can’t rouse himself to find a newbie to pass the bucket to. (Self-immolation from inertia/apathy causes certain local collapses in any downward construction.) He holds on to the pain bucket, staying on his level.
Leaving the mixer, he wanders dispiritedly down streets that are also like corridors, wide spaces that close high overhead, and which with their gradual curves, inclines and declines, give an impression of a vast architecture he’s treading. It’s twilight or it’s dawn, he can’t decide about the pearly gleams. Through gaps between the storefronts, he sees other corridors, semi-opaque tubes, slightly below or slightly above the level he’s on, with dark bars above and behind them which may be yet other passageways. The impression is of a labyrinth, but not a conventional labyrinth, rather a maze that swallowed other mazes, incorporating their twists and turns into its own, the way an engulfing bacterium ingests its prey’s genes, or a colleague’s, which alter and complicate and enlarge its own blueprint. He’s not alone, but he might as well be. The many people he passes, of all types and ages, share a single facial expression of faintly frowning preoccupation. And yet, it’s weird to say, but this face of inescapable concerns looks settled into, almost relaxed. It formulates a resignation verging on peace. As if they’ve finally found their way to a narrow band of tolerable strife, a treadmill of hassle and hustle…but it’s the treadmill they know. All they’ve really lost is the desire to escape it. Could lost without the desire to be found be…found?
Envy is immortal, Steve learns. Just as status is. Steve’s car crash was fiery front-page news, a crater in someone’s lawn and in many hearts; Randy’s pill-and-vodka exit in his room—in June, after graduation, when not even the principal needed to react— was “sadly missed” by elderly parents and a sister in Florida who couldn’t get home for the funeral. But now he’s—Randy the Raven. And I’m….
Steve takes to watching the living, a pastime of only the most insolvent dead. It’s every bit the declaration of bankruptcy that, in life, is signified by sitting around thinking of vanished times and faces, fixing your gaze on the departed.
LIn six-foot-high brown letters, spray-painted on an exterior wall of a Gerontology hub:
200 IS THE NEW 90
Local Medcrimes takes the case, which looks an obvious if spectacular instance of patient breach. The lab report identifying the brown paint as human excrement confirms the investigation’s routine progress in the direction of vandalism and/or dementia.
But complications (“wrinkles, ha ha”—Constable Tippett) soon emerge. First is the location of the graffiti on the 22nd floor, a billboard-sized slab of concrete bordered by a few small windows and distant from any doorway. “How would a wacked-out Gero even get up there?” (Constable Warren, Tippett’s senior partner)
A second lab report adds the details that the excrement a) came from at least 27 different bodies, and b) was fired with enough force, perhaps from a high-pressure hose, to fuse it with the concrete by embedding it deeply in every pore and fissure. Effacement is expected to be costly and protracted.
Copies of the reports forwarded to Administration, attention Budgeting and Long Term Planning.
LIt feels strange to watch your lover when you’re dead. Not nice, not not-nice, necessarily. It isn’t anything necessarily. Just…strange.
The strangeness comes, Steve thinks, from not knowing or feeling anything you didn’t know or feel before, with one exception: you know and feel you’re dead.
You’ve gained and lost. What you’ve gained is knowing and feeling you’re not alive. What you’ve lost is not knowing and feeling you’re dead.
And it’s that trade or transfer, he thinks—that switch from non to on, on to non—that adds the weight you feel around the dead. A kind of heavy fluid sense of accrued density. Not age, since you no longer exist in organic time, but it feels like old, old age might feel to the living.
That seabottom sort of pressure makes a newly dead fetus twice as old as the oldest ever living person. Without being in any sense wiser. Without being wise at all. The dead fetus doesn’t even know what a nipple is, it never got to find out. Yet it’s ancient.
Passing these wizened pygmies, Steve sometimes thinks with a shudder, That could be my son or daughter for all I know. I had a few girlfriends, we weren’t always careful….
One of them is his child. Something he can’t know because the only person who could tell him is on the other side. On the side of the non-dead.
“You have to size death up, same as any other opportunity,” says Randy Raven. “Sure, some doors close, but others open wide.” Steve relates Randy’s growing tendency to speak in brassy bromides to the shadowy corporate entities he’s seen him talking to (or listening to), dark oily vapors, like congealed smoke, who have given up maintaining organic semblances (which takes an effort of will as well as recall) in favour of drifting in stormcloud congeries down streets and corridors, sometimes massing in a front that hangs in the sky, low and oppressive, curtailing views and moods. These heavy new friends give Steve another reason, besides his mounting unpayable debt, to duck down alleys at the approach of his earthly classmate, who is as gormlessly attracted to power as ever, but who power has now perhaps decided has something to give back.
Since he no more occupies the space of organic life than its time, when he visits it, Steve can assume any vantage point large or small.
One morning he watches Abigail from behind a walnut, chewed on his side by a squirrel, near the park bench she is sitting on. She looks unwell. Listless and without expression. Two canes lean against the bench and she wears braces on her lower legs. A thick white bandage covers her left eye. When he goes through it, he is shocked to find not a damaged eye but no eye. He explores the spongy black socket, touching its cauterized nerves and vessels.
Another time he is stretched across the winter sky. It’s a nice thinned feeling, being everywhere, noplace more than any other. She breathes him in, sucking the cold air through her teeth. Her lungs are pink, but more mucusy than they should be. He’s no doctor—not even a dead one—but from pictures he recalls from his dad’s textbooks, or maybe a health class—the smoking lecture—these bronchial trees have too much gummy fog, some thick drippy liquid, oozing between their branches. Yet he doesn’t smell smoke.
On his next visit, he doesn’t see her smoking, though he stays with her through what a wall clock says are several hours, sitting on the roof of a barn in an ugly oil painting on the wall of the crowded waiting room she is stuck in. Why are doctors so cheap? he wonders, floating out from the barn to take in the tacky farmscape. Two hundred grand a year, and what? Crappy paintings a flunky found at a yard sale. Old Reader’s Digests, again probably brought in by a secretary. Lumpy chairs with torn upholstery. Abigail deserves to wait for their verdict in at least minimal comfort.
It’s like the musty Used Books and $1 Charity Bake Sales at banks. $1. From a bank. Maybe $42 on a busy Friday, the tellers cranking out the Rice Krispie and date squares with curses the night before. Wherever money pools, life dries to a trickle. Even the dead feel it. The dead more than anybody.
Lost in these thoughts, he looks out to find the clinic dark, everyone gone.
This kind of thing happens often. He has a guess why. He’s too attuned to Abigail’s welfare to keep up with her comings and goings, her biography. He thinks that could be why his visits to her skip about so randomly, and seem to come about independent of his will. He’ll want to visit her, but can’t. Then suddenly, he’s there.
She’s in a single bed in a dingy bachelor, fucking a skinny, balding man with a bad tattoo of a leprechaun on his shoulder. The movements of his shoulder blade make the leprechaun kick in a spastic jig. Abigail seems into it, she’s moaning with her eyes pressed shut, but Steve, sitting with his back against the base of the bedside lamp, watching the shadows jerk and tremble on the wall, grows disconsolate.
Abigail has some silver hairs threaded in with her brown. When is this? he starts to wonder, but the question falls like a pebble dropped down a bottomless mine shaft or canyon. No plink or echo.
She doesn’t think she can do any better, he thinks.
Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.