By Robert Whyte
Manacles, a novel by Robert Whyte 1972–2020
I typed the words:
Bloom the Wanderer, Brobdignagian, more potato than man, the scourge and salvation of the Irish feast and famine, dug from the earth fresh this very morning begorra, the only day of his life, at the age of 55.
and rolled the last page out over the satisfying ratchety clack of the platen and put it with the pile of pages Charles was nearly through reading.
It was a Saturday. We had rigged up a red wine supply in his loft studio in Oxford Park, a sun-blasted suburb in the north where he inhabited a disused lighthouse built as a gimmick by a petrol station which had since turned into an art supplies shop where he worked occasionally and got all his art supplies free. It was run by an aging artist-philanthropist, two parts Mervyn Moriarty, one part Vida Lahey, one part Daphne Mayo — at odds with the other parts because she kept ordering in sandstone blocks each the size of a beach house which no one could afford to buy, let alone sculpt.
The wine was our own blend of Clare Valley cabernet and Barossa shiraz with a good bolt of Mudgee malbec, making it the grand cru of cask wines, refillable because we had rigged up and filled three wine bladders from long since consumed casks, adding precision in-line taps, adjustable to alter the blend as the mood took you. The quality was not cask, it was vintage bottled, wine rescued from the ignorance and neglect of the cellar behind the drive-though at the city view hotel which we had pointed out to them was pretty much unsellable since it was covered with dust and you could hardly read the typewritten labels. We took the whole lot off them as a favour for $400 which I could well afford now I was considered a living literary treasure and was receiving large cheques from the Literature Board to prove it. The studio smelled of oil paint, ideas and pencil shavings, a good combination.
“Splendid,” said Charles, handing me back the pages of my masterpiece-to-be. “It reminds me of us, only much younger, with our innocent young enthusiasms being distorted by an autistic maniac on magic mushrooms. Let me apply a blowtorch to my corncob and you apply a match to your magnificent meerschaum, then we can pass the hours dribbling on about your great whyte hope for Australia’s literary future.” He produced the western six-shooter lighter I had utilised in my first chapter, fired up the cram-packed bowl of single-malt flavoured Davidoff Scottish Mixture and produced a manly smoke ring which hovered in the air long enough for a sprightly leprechaun to win the Olympic gold medal in smoke ring tumbling, while I struck a reliable redheads extra long and got the Mac Barens combustion going nicely in my meerschaum. Charles charged his glass with the red wine on tap, pointed the moistened stem of his pipe at me and asked, “What’s the title?”
“Manacles,” I said, ventilating the louvred atmosphere with vanilla flavoured molecules and dialling up the Malbec on my top-up.
“Apart from our own adventures,” said Charles, beginning to add silver nitrate to the wart-like tubercles in his nine-panelled painting he was finishing for the stock room at Phillip Pigstick’s industrial Gibson-designed Gallery of Expensive Art in Fortitude Valley, “what’s it about?”
“The title, or the book?”
“Both,” he said.
I thought about this for a while. No one had ever asked me that. The title was universally hated, people saying a book about handcuffs would never sell, that is was too negative or huh?
“It’s about freedom, I suppose,” I said eventually. “Or the illusion of it. All the bonds that tie you into routines of daily life, the restraints you willingly or unconsciously wear, sort of like everyone’s Helsinki syndrome relationship with reality. You just get used it. Not that there’s any alternative, of course.”
“How does that make you feel?” Charles asked in his most mellifluous tone.
I laughed. “Are you shrinking me?”
“Not at all,” he said.
“None of that’s explicit,” I said. “It would send you to sleep quicker than A Primer on Curing Limes, Mortars and Cements with a Focus on Pore Structure and Capillary Porosity.”
“Exactly,” I said. “It’s the grant-writing answer, the plausible deniability when you’re accused of just scribbling any old self-indulgent rubbish,”
“Nae, ye wouldna dae thart wouldja nae, yang Jammie?”
“Everyone does it,” I said. “That’s what makes it literature.”
“Literature, now you tell me, ain’t we mighty fine folk with tickets on ourselves, then bedab,” said Charles.
“Sorry,” he said. Mixing Bedouin with me Gaelic there.”
I learned forward, ostensibly to rehydrate myself with fermented grape juice, but in reality to impart some closely guarded observations and analyses which I was pretty sure would be received with scepticism, cynicism and gales of laughter.
Charles cut me off with a wave of his talons, saying, “Before you unburden your soul Jimmy, let me defenestrate the old bladder and let out this gallon of effluent over the baby lemon trees in the back yard.”
He motivated his limbs and moved with surprising grace for a big man, tiptoeing down the stairs, across the roof, down the ladder and into the garden, all under the cover of darkness which had crept across the landscape like squid ink spreading in a bucket.
I pushed the pause button and went into a state of suspended animation. Clearly time passed but since I was on pause, for me it wasn’t significant. A billion things may have happened in these few minutes and I may have felt deeply about them if I had been there, but I wasn’t and I didn’t.
The soft sound of footsteps on the stairs alerted me to his return. I pressed play. Charles returned with the same light-footed grace he had shown when taking his leave. He recharged his glass, twice, tossing down the first refill to whet his whistle prior to settling into the azure embrace of his blue hammock, re-firing his corncob and opening his mind.
“I have nothing to declare except my genius,” I began, “as Oscar Wilde was supposed to have said on January 3 1882, stepping off the ship that brought him from England to New York. He wouldn’t have said it there, but he might have said it in the New York Customs House, where government agents asked him if he had anything to declare, but there’s no evidence he actually said it. You’d think someone would have commented on it at the time, or punch him in the face, but it sounds like something Wilde would have said. I know what you’re going to say you’re no Oscar Wilde and who am I to declare my own genius, but anyone who was later proclaimed a genius first said it themselves, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Baudelaire, Jarry, Plato, Freud, Shelley, Keats, not Shakespeare of course but he didn’t have to he actually was a genius. What have all these duffers got that I haven’t? Or put it this way, what have I got that they haven’t? Eh? I’ll tell you. I’ve read all their books but they haven’t read mine. Ipso, dipso, rattle and hum. It seems my brilliant work here is done.”
Pleased with myself I drained my glass, refilled it, and peered across at my friend’s gently swaying hammock. Hmmm. The subtle criticism of snores. The fucker was asleep.
Probably for the best, I thought. Writing Manacles was harmless enough, but explaining it could get me into plenty, heap-big trouble. All my life, except for those times when I was the centre of attention, when golden rays of life-giving sunshine were pouring forth from my arse, my eyes, my mouth, my nose, my fingertips and every pore of my heavenly body, I had been aware of a desire to go unnoticed, to be overlooked, to step outside, an observer, on the outside looking in. Writing Manacles made it easy. I could see the social structures and simply step around them. Only one disinterested deviant could get away with it because humanity will always detect disobedience when more than one person does it. The sole operator is the dancing gorilla on the Mah-jong table of life.
“Apart from you and me,” said Charles, startling me from my musings, “who else is in it?”
“I thought you were asleep,” I said.
“You know what thought did.”
“He didn’t do anything, he just thought he did.”
“Exactly. And the raven spake, no more snore!”
I laughed. “OK, there’s me and you and Maria.”
“Have you asked her?”
“I’m just saying…” he let his right hand wave airily in the air.
“Objection noted. I shall consult the oracle with all due speed.”
“Then there’s Dad, an archetypal older bloke. He and Ted, an archetypal younger bloke, look after the chlorination machines that keep the ocean from going off. They were your suggestion, actually.”
“That’s funny, I don’t recall proposing such a thing.”
“You do in the book,” I said. “I haven’t written that yet.”
“Of course, how precocious of me,” said Charles.
“Hold up there. Just to be clear, they aren’t in the book James, my authobiographical main character, is writing, which is a short novel concerning one day in Dublin, or Brisbane, or Melbourne. Melbourne people think every book is set in Melbourne even when it’s not. I’m in it, Stephen Dedalus with a red bucket. George McIntyre is top potato, he’s the Bloom character. Tom Ryan is the Lord Mayor. He’s in a wheelchair.”
“Nice twist. This book the character James is writing, what’s it called?”
“Manacles,” I said.
“So you are writing about yourself being a writer in a book called Manacles with me and Maria in it and you are in it as a writer writing a book called Manacles, set in the same place on one day, sort of based on Ulysses by James Joyce, which is set in Dublin on one day, June 16 if I remember rightly, the day Nora popped his cherry, his book being based on Homer’s Odyssey.”
“Who is writing us?”
“What do you mean, us?” I asked.
“I mean us, us. Here, now, talking about all this.”
“I still don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Who is the real writer, writing this scene we are in now?”
“No-one is writing us,” I said. “This is real. Don’t say shit like that, it’s scary, it’s hard enough as it is. Something has to be real.” I rapped my knuckles hard on the side of my head. “Ow! See? Real.”
Charles’s eyes sparkled and he pointed his pipe stem at me again. In a slow drawl, he said, “Are you sure?”
I looked at him with the are-you-fucking-kidding-me? look, feeling my eyes spinning around in my head, my mouth open like a spread-eagled spatchcock.
Charles showed his teeth in a widening grin, then opened his mouth further and began gasping out hoots, turning quite red in the face, attempting to clutch his chest while still holding his wine, appearing to almost choke at regular intervals before hauling in a gigantic gasping wheelbarrows of air into his chest and repeating the noises coming from his mouth and nose. He was laughing!
He couldn’t stop. His chest and stomach heaved and hoots were interspersed with sprawling, wracking coughs, as snot streamed from his nose and tears from his eyes. His face was now a colour which made rhodamine red seem like a pastel.
Perhaps he would laugh himself to death. Serves him right. Bastard. It was funny though. I must have looked like Wile E. Coyote in his tiger trap with an actual burmese tiger.
The laughing was getting to me. You had to laugh, as the saying goes when you shoot your nipple off with a potato gun. Ow! I rubbed my head where I had rapped it with my knuckles. I had given it a hefty whack. It was growing a lump. Who’s writing us? Ha ha. It was infectious. Maybe it really was infectious. A laughing flu. Worse. A laughing plague. Jumping from human to human. What for, what did laughing get from us? Life? Like a giggleoparasite? Did that mean someone somewhere was always laughing or laughter would die? That’s funny. The day the laughter died. On the levy in my Chevy. Cracking up, like a worn out shoe. Cracking up. This is too real and there ain’t no escape. Oh fuck! There goes my wine, full crotch shot. And in my pipe, fuck it. How does he do that gimbal arm? The hammock’s contorting like crazy and that glass is hardly moving, everything else is earthquake. It’s like a chook-head steady-cam.
Charles blinked through whirling tears and flying snot looked across to me and my crotch-shot wet pipe and yelled a hyper-laugh which started him off again at double strength. The hammock came off the bottom hook and he slid to the couch underneath, what is this thing with safety couches. Even then he doesn’t spill a drop. This man is a gimbal genius. My own chest was heaving and I was now snot covered, tear drenched, wine soaked, wet pipe but fuck it if I was going lose the hammock grip! Then it popped and I landed in downy leather like a sack of dog bones.
Charles thought this was especially hilarious. Could it get any worse? I too was now a laughing, dribbling fool with no end in sight. At least this confirmed my thesis. This was real. People don’t laugh in books, not like this. The reader is supposed to laugh, not the characters. Laughing is not funny.
Charles was slowing down. Either that or piss his pants. I was just about to go double incontinent myself, wine crotch was bad enough but at least it didn’t smell like an old people’s home. Or did it?
He was getting himself under control. I stood up to air my wine crotch, empty my pipe and toss down a couple of quick wines. After bolting these horses well after the gate had slammed shut, I didn’t feel safe with the glass in hand. I was certainly no gimbal genius. I was already fully occupied being a literary one. I put my glass for safekeeping on the bookshelf in front of copy of Brillat-Savarin’s Transcendental Gastronomy, translated by Fayette Robinson. I repacked my pipe and rehooked my hammock. I didn’t look in the direction of Charles’s intermittent spluttering.
Charles rehooked his hammock and climbed into it. He didn’t need a top up as he still had wine in his glass which he drank delicately with a little finger outrageously overstretched, stifling snorts between sips. His pipe was still going. Bastard.
Charles looked towards me and caught my eye. He shrugged his hardly apologetic shoulders.
“Sorry,” he said. It came out like wheezing squeak. He wiped his nose and eyes with a handkerchief no bigger than the state of Texas.
I waved his apology away, smearing snot along my forearm.
“Ah,” he said at last, “That’s put the sinus operation off for a couple of years at least. The great cheekbone caverns are once more empty.”
I let that one go.
Feeling capable of basic balancing, I retrieved my glass, refilled it, refilling the Malbec bladder while I was at it, empty now due to the thrashing I had given it. Charles nodded approvingly and drew off an entire glass of Malbec for himself. I climbed into my hammock, got my pipe lit and sent a plume of smoke towards the far-off ceiling, rimmed with a 360 degree panopticon of glass, not really a panopticon as the fake lighthouse windows were high up near the ceiling and there wasn’t any way to look out of them.
Scrunching back into the hammock and stretching, Charles said, “I’m glad that’s over. Now we are back travelling stability street, Jimmie, can I ask you a question?”
I nodded assent.
“Why?” he asked.
My head jerked. I looked at him with the face of a dead fish.
“Why what?” I said.
“Why are you writing this book? I mean apart from the fact you can’t help yourself, being a mad scribbler. It’s entertaining and all that, but what is the point?”
Oh. I knew the answer to that one.
“Joyce didn’t leave anything else,” I said. “He was a realist. He never did the dream within a dream stuff, even though Finnegans Wake is a dream. He read Flann O’Brien Swim-Two-Birds, so we know he got it. He liked it. He said it was a really funny book and let them put that on the back cover.”
“If Flann O’Brien’s done it, why do it again?” Charles asked.
“At Swim-Two-Birds is a comedy, a fantasy,” I said. Mine is realist.”
“A gigantic potato?”
“Not that, obviously, but that’s metaphorical. No, for James the character, and his character James. The setting is not real, but they know that, therefore they are real.”
“A realist approach to obvious fiction? I like it.”
“The book James has written, the little one in the middle, seems too weird to the James character in it, obviously because you can’t really have all the Ulysses stuff like Lotus Eaters, Sirens, and Cyclops and stay totally real. He realises he is in a book and wants to escape. I have to kill him off.”
“How did you manage that.”
“Death by marauding council bus.”
“Those fucking things are dangerous. The underneath is like swarming cockroach legs, they can rear up while travelling at speed, silent except for the gnashing and whumph. He’s gone. Empty street and tail lights disappearing round the bend.”
“I’d be taking a tour of the Toowong bus depot, just to check on that, if I were you.”
“No way, just one of them is bad enough. Hundreds of them would be like taking the lid off the compost bin. But let’s not distracted. No one has really done this seriously, this Russian dolls book thing, they leave bits out and it’s always an obvious fantasy. It has to be credible. It’s got to portray how a book might look to a character, especially one who knows it is a book and not real. That’s easy for the James in the little book, not that it matters because that world burns up and is flooded by the sea. No-one survives. It’s harder for my James, the James in the book I have written. He kind of catches on in glimpses. I’m worried if he starts to realise too much he’ll get bolshie and lead some sort of rebellion or just refuse to play any part in the book at all.”
“So he starts off thinking he’s real?”
“You’ve read that part,” I said. “The party scene. It’s as real as it gets because it actually happened.”
“So what tips him off?
“Everything is fairly plausible up until the middle section with the novel within the novel, then things get a bit weird. The main character inside that one starts to suspect, then it leaks out into the next novel up. Other characters look at what the main character is writing and find out they are in it. He’s been writing stuff describing them. It gets worse when he finds a big hole burnt in the manuscript, and there’s a part where he fucks up meeting Maria and he crosses some of that out, going back to before he fucked up.”
“Do Charles and Maria know they are characters?”
“I think so. It’s harder for me to tell what they’re thinking. But they know about the chlorination works for the ocean which are in both worlds and they kind of escape.”
“Not really clear, it’s kind of atmospheric. They escape to the country, or the island, both places are outside the book.”
“They can just walk off the edge of the book like the Flat Earth Society?
“Sort of. Not literally. They are not very rounded characters, just foils for James. He knows he must have a physical resemblance to the author of the book he is in, because after all, he’s a writer and his character is obviously based on the author, in other words me. He reasons he has power to alter things in the book, by introducing his own writing. His basic plan is to write himself a way out. Charles and Maria are sleeping in a worker’s tent on the city square, near the eternal traffic lights. Their sleeping arrangements haven’t really been explained. James finds them and explains his plan. They go to the café to discuss it. Maria’s keen, she’s always wanted to be a resistance leader. Charles isn’t so sure. He wants to know whether the Writer’s Cafe is just a chance locale, or whether in some real life somewhere there is an author who is sitting in a cafe, writing about them and using the cafe as some guide to the description and furthermore since this cafe where they were sitting now was filled with writers, it was obviously possible that the author was one of these writers, here, in this very cafe, right now!”
“Atta boy Charles.”
“True to type, apparently,” I said, grimacing. “James is shitting himself, but Charles just laughs and tells him not to take everything so seriously. ‘Just enjoy yourself’, he says. ‘You’re in a book, you’re a writer, so write something’.”
“I’m liking this Charles character,” said Charles.
“You would,” I said.
In the pregnant pause following my marathon synopsis, Charles adjusted his head back onto his spinal column as a mark of true respect.
“Have you written any of this yet?” he said.
“Not much,” I said.
“None, really,” I admitted.
“On your bike, sunshine,” said Charles.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 278
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 28 May 2019
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