Slade Harris will do anything for a story. He doesn’t think twice about jumping out of a plane or conducting disastrous love affairs to gather material for his writing. But his selfish way seems to be catching up with him: stumbling through his late thirties hopeless and a little drunk, his agent after him like a particularly stubborn strain of venereal disease, Slade has a dazzling, dangerous idea, which sets off a motion of events that will change his life forever.
It’s going to be Slade’s ultimate story, and all he’s hoping for is to survive it.
"Absorbing, chilling, funny and original ... definitely a fresh new voice in South African fiction." - Hamilton Wende
Friday, January 13, 2012
Monday, December 5, 2011
Friday, October 14, 2011
“Harris, where have you BEEN?” shouts Sifiso into my ear.
“I’ve been around. What’s up?” I think that maybe, if I’m really casual about everything, I will be able to diffuse his anger. I hold the phone away from my ear just in case.
“What’s UP? I’ll tell you what’s UP!” he yells. Oh boy.
“What’s UP is THIS: you’ve been AVOIDING my calls! Now why would you want to do THAT?”
I wind my watch.
“Are you angry about something, man? Want to talk about it?”
“You don’t have time to TALK, my friend! That’s unless you have been so quiet because you’ve been finishing the NOVEL you’ve owed me since FEBRUARY.”
Eish. I didn’t realise it had been that long.
Ha. Who am I kidding? Every month since February has slid by like barbed wire on naked flesh.
“Sorry. I wasn’t avoiding you on purpose. Things have just been a bit slow around here. I’m battling with the ending.”
More like, I’m battling with the opening sentence, but he doesn’t need to know that. This seems to calm him down a little. He sighs, martyr-like, down the line.
“Look, Harris, I KNOW you don’t need the extra pressure from me but it’s my JOB, you know? I need to get that finished manuscript from you. Everyone here is breathing down my NECK.” I visualise the veins in his neck almost popping out of the skin.
There is a welcome respite as he takes some time to gather himself.
“People are SAYING THINGS, Harris.”
I harrumph at that. As if anyone would dare. I have more talent than this whole fucking city combined. I don’t give a flying shit-arse what they’re saying.
“What are they saying?”
“I don’t want to upset you. I don’t want you to think about it. I want you to concentrate on finishing the MANUSCRIPT. That’s ALL I want you to think about.”
“What are they saying?” I ask again, an edge to my voice.
“They’re imbeciles. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“They’re saying you’ve lost it. You’re dried up. BILTONG. You’re finished.”
“Oh.” Expected, but it still stings.
“They say you only had three books in you and now you’re empty. Finito.”
“Okay, I get the message.”
“Toosuccessfultoofast. That it’s over. IS it over, Harris?”
“Of course not. This one has just been a little slow. Tolstoy took ten years to write War and Peace, for God’s Sake. Sometimes you can’t rush these things.”
I think I hear him stifle a chuckle.
“THAT’S what I TOLD them! And then I flipped them the birdie.”
“I told them to pick a finger!”
“But it’s still my ARSE on the line, my reputation, Harris, so for fuck’s sake just FINISH IT!”
There’s no way I can write after such a grilling so I decide to go for a walk around the neighbourhood, get some air. The air is fresh and the roads quiet. I suppose most people are at work. Thank Christ I don’t have to sit in a smelly open-plan nine-to-five. Or have those humiliating office parties where you invariably end up vomiting punch into the accountant’s dustbin, or shagging the half-conscious intern over the photocopy machine. Or have a manager of sorts, someone with receding hair and a boep who dresses in chinos and walks around in a loud tie with a mug in his hand, bestowing pie charts and spiky performance reports. The horror! I walk past a little black cat that looks at me with dubious yellow eyes, sleek body poised, ready to dart. Skinny and elegant except for her short legs. Munchkins, I think they’re called. Dwarf-cats. Perhaps if I weren’t so selfish I would get a pet. Pets are good. Pets are normal. You can’t spiral into the darkness when you have a dog to walk, a cat to feed. I’ve never really had my own, apart from Maxwell, who didn’t really count. He had fleas that were more entertaining than him. And I’ve never really liked cats much. Too damn self-assured. And a little scary. They have this way of just appearing out of nowhere. Witches’ familiars. Munchkin and I stare down each other. She’s pretty. Despite myself, I want to touch her, so I take a tentative step forward. She’s up and through the fence before my trainer touches the ground. I won’t take it personally: I know thoroughbreds are skittish. I’m tempted to tell Starling & Co. to take a running jump with their three-book deal but then think of the advance money I have spent. Which is all of it. Despite the generous royalty cheques I get, I’m in a little debt. I’m a bit over my head with life in general. There’s no need to panic, really. If I’ve written a bestseller before – three times before – then I can do it again. It will come, I sigh to myself, when the time is right. Bless you Jesus. I keep walking.
I’ll never forget my first book launch. Sifiso was there from the beginning, a fresher face, a flatter gut, and hungry. Just as I was. He was a junior editor when he worked on my first book, Mercenary. He had rescued it from the slush pile at Starling & Co. and it became the book that launched his career, although you’ll never catch him admitting to it. For the last decade we’ve shared an erratic bond that started with that scrawny manuscript. The book was about a woman who would do anything for money. I painted her as a cold bitch with just enough redeeming qualities to make the reader curious about what happens in the next chapter.
I didn’t plan the novel at all.
The launch party was at the Grace Hotel in Rosebank, when it was still Something. My father came in an old suit and highly polished, scuffed shoes. I was so excited that evening, it seemed to pass in an hour, and at three in the morning Sifiso and I found ourselves stretched out on wide leather settees, the last to leave. He had the company credit card and we were drinking the last of many bottles of some Cap Classique and guffawing over our sudden success. He ended up giving me a lift home, not because of how drunk I was but because when we finally found my precious brand new Jaguar XKR in the parking lot, the tyres had been slashed and the doors keyed. The car itself seemed distressed and looked at me with blame in its headlights. Sifiso had been upset by this: he didn’t understand why someone would deliberately drive a butcher knife into the handsome oily rubber of my Falken tyres, especially on such an important night. I acted as bewildered as he looked, even though I of course knew exactly who had inflicted the damage. The knowledge rang as clear as an alarm bell in my head.
I intentionally date women I think will yield the most interesting experiences. Warning signs on first dates, sending sensible men running in the opposite direction, guarantee I’m hooked. I like to think of them as sub-plots. Some sub-plots you should develop, others, not. Fay Weldon said that she was good with relationships, they just weren’t very good with her. But she doesn’t regret anything because it is all good copy.
There was Melany, who told me on our first encounter that she had father-issues (read: liked to get spanked). She taught me a lot about psychoanalysis and the Elektra complex. I used her for a short story. It was good. Eventually the relationship fizzled out: I could only stand to be called ‘daddy’ so many times before it became awkward. Then there was Vanessa. She was a sweet, pretty little thing, a most unlikely fan of S&M, or rather, M. She was a great character study for me: opened up a whole new world. She would take me to bizarre underground clubs and ask me to tie her up, which I did with pleasure. She had a walk-in cupboard of erotic outfits I had to write about the minute I laid eyes on it. It was like a costume department of a pornographic vampire film set. And the costumes weren’t just for her. I liked the whips and studs and hot black latex but I drew a neat line at the gimp suit. I didn’t mind the stuff that gave her a little pain without too much damage, but I wouldn’t do anything that drew blood. She was disappointed but, as Clint Eastwood says, a man’s got to know his limitations. The sex itself was mediocre. It was the only relationship I have ever left thinking that I hadn’t hurt her enough.
Bella, on the other hand, was a different story. She was so clingy, so desperate that no matter how badly I treated her, she always came back for more. I didn’t mean to cause her pain: I am a bastard but I do have some warmth in my veins; I had to sting her histrionic heart for her own good. She told me she loved me within a week of meeting me, tried to move in the week after that and, when that didn’t work, tried to introduce me to her high-flier parents. I was cruel: I threw her clothes and bottle of Dior out of the window while it was raining and laughed out loud when she knelt in front of me, romcom-style, black spiders of mascara on her slipping down her cheeks, begging me to love her. I laughed. Not out of malevolence: the situation was ridiculous and I had a hard time taking her seriously. She would have fits of hysteria, tantrums where she would flail into my arms, stopping only when I crushed her against my chest, like a long-haired Fabio in some pulp romance.
And then of course there was Sally Ellis. When I met her in a cigar lounge in Sandton one evening, I knew I had to write about her. The warning signs were all there. A tall, beautiful, redhead (the red hair should have tipped me off but I was, for a while, in her thrall) who seemed mentally stable, intelligent, independent, had fantastic taste in shoes, and a villain in the sack. It was just asking for trouble. The initial month passed with me wanting more of her – a first – so we kept it going for a while longer. We had fun, made each other laugh, got on so well that I began to worry that I liked her company too much.
One night, when the relationship was still half-shiny, after too much to drink, I told her about Emily. No details, obviously, it just came up that I used to have a little sister. I had never told anyone even that. An almost-honest moment and – I should have known better – way too honest for me. Afterwards there was too much emotion in the air, it became hard to breathe. I began to think of reasons I didn’t like her, but she didn’t need much help from me. Her claws had already begun to show. It was as if she had been pretending to be someone else – which she was very good at – but every now and then her mask would slip. In hindsight I guess we were playing a similar game. It took me over two months to get her into bed, but the conquest was about more than sex. I crept into her life and absorbed everything I could. I found her complete lack of warmth fascinating. Behind the mask she was a cruel woman, she treated people abysmally. I had feelings for her. She would humiliate cashiers, chastise waiters at full volume and screech at beggars at intersections to get their grime away from her car. In the beginning the sex was incredible, but that also slipped and towards the end she was aloof and distant. I think I actually used the words “fucking [Sally] was like mounting the abominable snowman, but not as much fun”. Not my most poetic line of prose but you get the picture.
She stopped seeing other people and, I guess, she wanted me to do the same but I have a philosophical objection to monogamy. I just don’t think it’s natural. If you consider all the adultery in the world you have to either believe that man is inherently bad, or that monogamy is just not sustainable. I think that monogamy is a concept created by our forefathers for our own good: a bit like the Koran, or the Bible. The point of printing those wordy epistles was to make the world a better place. Monogamy, as a principle, would mean fewer illegitimate children and venereal disease, with more solid family units to make everyone feel safe. Most countries wouldn’t elect a president who fucks a different woman (or man) every week, preferring to go instead with Happily Married. I guess that makes our country an anomaly, unless you accept polygamy with benefits as a solid family unit. Clinton was thrown out for enjoying the most famous blowjob in history: our guy not only has five wives, but feels the need to shag his groupies on the side. Monogamy, like communism, appears to work only in theory.
I tried to explain this to Sally but she was a little slow on the uptake. Bit by bit I began to realise that one of her (many) personality flaws was jealousy: not the subtle, flattering variety but more the certifiable kind. I joked with her, quoting Hanif Kureishi, asking why people who are good at families have to be smug and assume it’s the only way to live, instead of being blamed for being bad at promiscuity. She didn’t find it funny. I did. She asked me what the hell I knew about family; that’s when it started going very much downhill. I, being very good at promiscuity, used to send her flying into acid rages. Her true character came out in exchanges with other people when she would snap, bite and break people’s necks (metaphorically speaking), like some kind of easy-on-the-eye Tyrannosaurus. It was magic material. I got more words down during that relationship than I ever had before. Once the fighting started in earnest and I had leached absolutely everything I could from her, I didn’t hang around for long. It felt like our elaborate dance was over.
I turned out the manuscript in record time.
I remember feeling relieved, elated. I had this stupid smile. I took her to the most public restaurant I could think of to break up with her, an expensive oyster bar in the Square. By then I didn’t even find her attractive anymore. Those cruel green eyes, thin lips, flat chest, insipid skin. It was like shaking off snow after a long walk home. After helping myself to another glass of chardonnay from the bottle and finishing her naked pink prawn starter, I had to stop myself from skipping out of there. It was my first successful novel. But, I thought as I looked at my wounded Jag, it came at a price.
The threats started a week before the release, when the good reviews hit the press, culminating in the unfortunate tyre-slashing episode. I may have let it slip while we were dating that I would use my first advance cheque as a deposit on the car of my dreams. She knew the car, freshly driven out of the dealership, was my Achilles heel, and forced her cold kitchen knife right through the fantasy. Tyres mutilated, she Picasso’d the doors with her car keys; the gun-metal grey paint never looked the same. Sifiso advised me to lay a charge against her but I couldn’t. I had no proof that it was her and I felt that I did, in a way, deserve it. I had more than enough money to fix it, and to buy the whole indoor soccer club beers the night Frank and I christened her PsychoSally.
She has mostly left me alone since then and only leaves threatening messages on my cell when she has had a particularly bad day, or sees something that reminds her of me, perhaps a steaming turd, or a particularly angry, infected boil, so I am surprised at the venom in this latest attack. Perhaps there is a sequel to Mercenary? A deranged ex is very fertile ground for a story. Little sparks of beginning-thoughts start glinting in my mind until I sit down with a pen and my new notebook. Then they disappear: snuffed out by the pesky winds of self-preservation.
I hope that Francina knows what to do about the writing on the wall. I guess the whole neighbourhood now knows where I live, which isn’t great for privacy. Already paranoid, I will now have to deal with Gawkers.
I moved to this neighbourhood in northern Jozi because I felt people here were rich enough to mind their own business. The Parks: small lock-up-and-go stands on beautiful tree-lined avenues. The kind of suburb that reminds you that Johannesburg is an urban forest. I knew I didn’t need a heated swimming pool, jacuzzi or sauna, nor did I need the cottage with the sky-lit studio. I definitely didn’t need the huge porcelain-tiled kitchen but I must admit that I do like the gadgets (electric and gas plates, giant Smeg fridge, Juicerator, Smoothie-maker, ice-maker, ice-crusher, mini blow-torch, glass toaster with matching panini press, seven-tiered steam machine, wine-cooler, cappuccino-maker …) and God knows I don’t need the other five rooms. But I do love the north-facing one – which I like to call the den – with its double-volume pressed ceilings and the way the light floods in there in the mornings. It is by far the most enchanting working space I have ever had; the two novels I wrote following Mercenary enjoyed their gestation in there. I guess, in a way, I have PsychoSally to thank for it. By the same token I could also thank her for the ridiculous, hefty bond repayment I have to make every month, which will probably contribute to the heart attack I will eventually have, causing me to fall (panini press in hand) into the bubbling jacuzzi and, therefore, to my eventual demise, securing her the best revenge without so much as the knowledge of it.
It’s not that I don’t know I sabotage my life. I’m completely aware of the fact I could lead a pretty normal life if I didn’t purposefully fuck everything up so much. But what would I do with a petite housewife in Abercrombie & Fitch and two little thugs for children? What would I write about if I spent all day drinking freshly-pressed beetroot juice laced with vodka and taking the Weimeranas and/or ungrateful kids to the park, seeing the same Smug Marrieds for dinner every Friday night? Perhaps I’d have a demanding silk-smothered mistress, one who makes me lick her stilettos and promise not to leave my wife. Or a stripper prostitute in a scabby hotel room once a week, in a vain attempt to inject some form of dirty excitement into my sad little life. I doubt it would be very entertaining by anyone’s standards. Yet this alternative way of living, the one I have chosen and designed with such care, is catching up with me. I feel myself being sucked into the widening gyre. Things Fall Apart.
Sometimes I wonder if I even have the right to exist. If I am my own invention, isn’t it the same as saying that I am zero to the power of zero? Tapping this foot, tossing this paper ball into the air. Bret Easton Ellis says in his Lunar Park that if one gives one’s life to fiction once, it becomes a character. A shadow of the real thing. No, less than that: a shadow of a shadow.
Friday, September 23, 2011
Friday, September 9, 2011
Friday, September 2, 2011
In darkness: headpounding, stomachswimming, eyesitching.
I reach for the bottle of San Pellegrino I keep next to my bed. Someone has taken it. Bastard.
No, that’s not right.
The neighbour’s junker is grumbling. Jack Russell barking.
I left the bottle in the den last night, was using it to top up my whiskies. Amateur mistake. I raise my eyelids just enough to get a bright slice of white ceiling.
After a few shallow breaths I stand up and fall down. Starsinhead. Dizzy. Make it to the coffee machine and flick the red switch. It growls.
Scratch my stubble. Brainonfire.
The morning glare through the kitchen window is ruthless. I close my eyes for a while to give them a bit of a rest. I need to piss and shower and eat something greasy. Breakfast at Salvation Café. A double Bloody Mary blitzed with raw egg and Tabasco.
Now warm, the coffee machine grinds, blasts and spits. The fridge is vacant apart from some old oil-blemished pizza boxes, crystallized balsamic syrup and a never-opened jar of mysteries picked up at the last organic market with Eve. I should never go to organic markets. And I should never have bought such a leviathan fridge. Peering into its airy innards makes me feel lonely. It never used to be this way.
This appliance has seen its fair share of riches: countless bottles of Veuve Cliquot and glittering round tins of Russian Caviar, like gold coins for giants. Now it sits, sulking, vacant, desolate. My heart is an empty refrigerator.
The milk is beyond rescue and it swirls down the sink trap. I stir the coffee too hard, slopping it down the side of the mug, leaving an eclipse on the pale marble slab of the counter top. I’ll clean it up later.
Like the walking dead, dripping hot mug in hand, I stagger to my writing desk in the den to survey the damage, taking care to not trip over the piles of books lying in the way. It doesn’t look too bad at first glance. Doesn’t look too bad at all till I see my murdered Moleskine lying like a dead animal on the edge of the bureau, creamy belly exposed, inky guts ripped out.
“You look like shit.”
“Thanks. I look way better than I feel.”
It’s been a wreck of a morning so far and smiling hurts. I kiss her on the cheek and grab the chair in the shade, not too close, in the empty hope that she doesn’t smell the stale whisky leaking from my pores. I put my phone on the table beside her bunch of keys: her silver apple keyring glints in the sun.
She is dressed up. I wonder if she is meeting someone after breakfast. Another man maybe, or a sponsor. Or maybe it’s a shoot: apart from being an artist, she is a partner in a small film company. I am immediately jealous.
She lowers her very large sunglasses slightly and takes a look at my sorry state.
“Did you party too hard last night with what’s-her-name?”
“Kind of,” I grin. Ouch. “You could say that.”
Eve sits back with her arms crossed. She always has her arms crossed. She’s always disapproving in a hot librarian kind of way.
“So? How are things with her? What’s her name again?”
The waitress arrives with menus too big to be practical. I struggle with mine and almost knock over my pre-ordered double-hot Bloody Mary.
“It’s over. So it doesn’t matter.” I mumble, but she gets the gist.
“Why am I not surprised?” She sighs, closing her menu and setting it down on the table.”What happened?”
“I broke it off last night.”
“Another non-surprise then.” She makes a show of yawning. Taps the table leg with her ballet flat. “Very boring, Slade.”
This jabs me in the stomach. There are not many things I fear more than predictability. Being a bore: I find that terrifying. She knows this and indulges me with a half-smile, to show that she was half-kidding.
God, Eve is sexy in her tailored ivory suit and bare pink lips. Jackie O shades. Although she looks just as desirable in the paint-stained oversized men’s collared shirts she works in. And her ponytail. I love her hair in a ponytail. What I wouldn’t do to grab … I realise I am daydreaming and try to remember what it was we were speaking about. I hide behind my Oakley’s: this babbelas is making me feel a thousand years old.
Ponytails, lips, yawning: Ah, whatshername.
“Well, it wasn’t working. I had to end it. She was no good.”
A man from the adjacent table glances over, curious, then turns away before I can tell him to mind his own damn business.
“No good for your writing, you mean.”
“Yes. Well, it’s the same thing, isn’t it? It’s not like I can be okay without my writing.”
It’s all I have.
I don’t tell Eve I broke the news to the woman early in the evening so I could get home in time to work on a few notes. It didn’t work: nothing came to me. In the end I – apparently - finished a bottle of whisky and tore up my notebook. Which is becoming a habit.
I ignore the flash of annoyance in Eve’s eyes. She nibbles a nail.
“How did she take it?”
“Not as heartbroken as the accountant, not as happy as the talk-show host. Somewhere in between. Pretty neutral, really. I think that’s what I didn’t like about her.”
“Her grace? Equanimity? Even-temperedness? I can see how that could be very unappealing.”
The waitress is back with a hopeful look on her face.
I clench my fist.“She didn’t give me anything.”
The man looks over again: I can feel his eyes on me. Who is he? A fan? A spy? An assassin? I glare at him and he immediately begins to inspect his sunny-side-up. Nosy fucker.
“I bet you didn’t give her anything.”
I look into the distance and adjust my scarf against the breeze. We order the Brie omelette and Caribbean sweet French toast with maple syrup, berries and organic cream. A giant pot of Earl Grey.
What Eve didn’t know was that karma had burnt me just that morning. The hangover wasn’t the only thing nudging me to the edge. As I had lurched from my writing den to the front door and turned the key, I heard a car door slam shut outside and burn rubber. I remember thinking: at least someone is having an interesting morning. I’d made a distracted effort to close my dressing gown over my old Iron Maiden T-shirt and grey jocks, put on my sunglasses to mitigate the evil brightness of the Johannesburg sun, and opened the door. Nothing looked out of place but I’d had a strange feeling in my gut, which may or may not have had something to do with the previous night’s Glenfiddich. A few cool, barefoot steps later I had the newspaper in one hand, coffee in the other, and felt a little better about life in general. Until I turned around.
It wasn’t that bad. I mean, she could have thrown a Molotov cocktail through the window and burnt the place down altogether. She could have pulled an Al-Qaeda and detonated some sweet-smelling plastic explosive on the front lawn. She could have hired a Casspir – Mellow-Yellow - and mown the house down. That would have been worse. Instead she had graffiti’d ‘SLADE HARRIS YOU CUNTING FUCK’, all along the front wall in a particularly fetching shade of crimson. I still haven’t decided if I enjoyed her creative license with the shoddy punctuation and the transmutation of the word ‘cunt’ into an adjective. Anyhow, it has a certain ring to it, and it’s certainly not easy to forget. Full marks for punchiness. Standing there with the cool morning air on my still bed-warm thighs and admiring her work had a kind of justice in it, I suppose, for I have hurt a lot of women and it seems time that one of them has become intent on punishing me. It is unfortunate, however, that this particular one happens to be a psychopath.
When I get back from breakfast with Eve I am still a little jumpy. I keep picturing Sally standing motionless outside my house, looking straight ahead, the epitome of calm apart from a single spray-paint-stained hand. A street version of Lady Macbeth. The idea unsettles me a bit, so I like it. Not because I’m fearless: the opposite is true. I spend the rest of the day avoiding walking past windows and don’t open the door to anyone, not even the feather-duster man. I like it because having a beautiful, persistent, bunnyboiler ex could be very interesting.
And I am desperate for interesting.