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Words by George Oliver
Image by Gretchen Gales
Composing himself at the stairhead before descent, he groaned as he thought about it, exhaling audibly. The he was Konstantine Orlando Glass, the it fiction writing: a match determined by chance and defined by complication, and responsible for a life of unrest and despondency.
It had all begun so promisingly. His debut novel, Fragility, the result of both luck and the tireless efforts of friends, achieved the rare thing of both strong reviews and commercial success. Glass was to this day still proud of its conceit: George Oliver, his protagonist, has achieved fame and success as a writer but wakes up one day and has forgotten how to read. The novel becomes the struggle against this practical but also intellectual obstacle, giving narrative to the Successful Novelist’s worst nightmare.
It had all begun so promisingly. Cut to: delivery by nurse Sally Potter, Incandenza Hospital, 5th June 1967:
Out shoots Konstantine Glass, at precisely 3:33 am. He weighs 5.8 lb and measures 47 cm. Konstantine Sr.’s immediate reaction: ‘Goodness – is he supposed to be that small?’
It had all begun so promisingly. A “precocious child”, they called him. 11th October 1976, Enfield Primary School:
‘So today we’re going to talk about life. Who can tell me what it means to them? How would you describe it in a sentence?’
(Directing her gaze to the owner of the only raised hand) ‘Yes, Konstantine?’
(Without blinking) ‘Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.’
Fragility indicated that Glass was beginning at the conceptual end, using George as a mouthpiece, imagining what would happen if it suddenly all went wrong, if he lost everything he lived for. Glass did this from the comfortable and creatively liberating position of nothing having gone right – or having really gone anywhere at all. Yet.
When published, its reviews recycled the word “audacious”, invariably beginning their praise at the fact that he had skipped any preamble and arrived at an imagined end, threatening to kill the writer-character once and for all, threatening to destroy the idea. And as if in response to expectation, his following three novels returned to George and his story – Smashed, Infirm, and If Broken, Will Shatter. George had become Glass’ Nathan Zuckerman. He had set the ball rolling, like Philip Roth, for a writing career to run parallel to his own.
He moved the story sideways, introducing further threats to George’s career after he remembered how to read on the final page of Fragility, the successful result of tests for a new form of shock therapy modeled specifically for the creative: “AmnesiaC”. Those three novels were similarly well received, and enough copies were sold to allow Glass to give up his day job and devote all his energy to writing.
He returned to his story sporadically over the next twenty years, publishing other (more topical, less self-conscious) standalone books as breaks from the George narrative. And every publication was fraught with difficulty, plagued with near-incompletion. Writing about himself, under a thinly veiled guise? That was barely experimental – the times he tried to get things published that were actually weird were an unimaginable struggle. The avant-garde stuff didn’t even get off the ground; it occupies its own draw in Glass’ study, pages and pages of notes and drafts that will never see the light of day.
His latest was a return to both George and the style of writing that punctuated those early novels in which he was protagonist. Still Here was published as the desperate attempt to accentuate that Glass and George were precisely that. But the plea for attention fell on deaf ears – most didn’t read it and those that did didn’t enjoy it. The premise: George wakes up one day aware that he is in a novel, that of a writer known only as Orlando. Using the knowledge at his disposal, George attempts to escape the predicament, to overthrow Orlando and stop being written.
The novel was almost unanimously hated. Here are some of the more indelible critiques, as they appear in newspaper cut-out form on Glass’ wall above the desk in his study:
“an artistic misfire” (Baumgarten) “literary defecation” (Reed)
“would seem to be a parody of something or other – itself?” (Morgenstern)
“Without a compelling plot and a modicum of character development” (Lengel)
“devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion” (Sharkey)
“dependably perverse” (Rothkopf) “a beautiful disaster” (Collin)
Collin’s was the closest thing to a compliment the book received. This was supposed to be Glass’ late-career opus, his second wind; but he had fallen flat on his face. In trying to parody pretension he had, well, written something pretentious.
Here he is, twenty-five years to the day after the publication of Fragility, thirty-four days after the publication of Still Here, alone in his tiny apartment, masturbating into a sock, finishing, throwing it in the direction of the bin, missing, managing to land it on (and consequently add to) an accumulating pile of used takeaway boxes. Glass sighs again, striving to outdo the one at the stairhead thirty minutes previous both in terms of length and loudness. The attempt falls short and the manoeuvre deviates, becoming a succession of coughs.
The present situation had, perhaps inevitably, left Glass feeling profoundly unhappy. He wasn’t suicidal, or even anywhere near it, but had nevertheless entertained the idea that he would join that exclusive group of the literary world’s fallen. He had a sick sense of humor. He’d even sketched a table in his notes:
Woolf 1941 Aged 59 Walked into the River Ouse with stones in pockets
Hemingway 1961 61 Shot himself in the head
Plath 1963 30 Placed head in oven
Thompson 2005 67 Shot himself in the head
Wallace 2008 46 Hanged himself from patio rafter
Glass? 2018 51 ?
It was hard to tell when Glass’ self-loathing was performative… when it was merely a continuation of his fiction, off the page, and when it was genuine.
On paper, his set-up was ideal; it had all the ingredients, all the right pieces in place for him to be the Tortured Protagonist: his career had nosedived, he’d been forced to swap a nice house for a shit apartment, his wife had left him, his daughter rarely talked to him. Inadvertently, he had become the perfect subject for one of his own novels – say, the one that catches up with George Oliver at a point of crisis, washed up and at the end of his tether, falling apart, etc.
Suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Check. Was Glass taking arms against the sea of troubles? Not exactly.
‘So, Mr. Glass, why have you decided to come out now? Where have you been hiding?’
Glass conducts a thorough visual examination of the speaker before responding to what has been spoken. He is everything Glass isn’t: tall, in good shape, confident, enthusiastic; and has everything Glass doesn’t: facial hair that is neither thinning nor greying, an expensive three-piece suit, youth, optimism.
‘In plain sight. And why not? Now’s as good a time as ever.’
‘The timing of the new novel is a coincidence?’
‘I have a new novel?’
‘You do. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to think it’s very good. I wouldn’t bother reading it if I were you.’
Glass smirks. He liked the balls on this kid. He was keeping up with his sense of humour.
The interview was his agent’s idea – the chance to boost sales for Still Here. The opportunity to reiterate its message and remind people that the author of Fragility does in fact still exist. Miles thought it would be a good idea if it was conducted by someone other than a traditional journalist. He shopped the idea around, settling with Acquire magazine and then responding with a resounding yes when they suggested Glass be interviewed by up-and-coming writer Thomas Foster. Phone calls were made, strings were pulled, and here Glass and Thomas are, sixteen days after the publication of Still Here.
‘I’ll give it a miss then. I hear your debut is quite good – perhaps I’ll read that one instead.’
‘We’ll talk more about Still Here shortly… firstly, why so long since the last book? The Undiscovered Country – eight years ago, if I’m not mistaken.’
‘You are. It was nine; The Question was eight.’
‘I don’t think I read that one.’
‘I don’t think anyone did.’
‘How have you been spending your time? We’re talking almost a decade here.’
‘I published under another name. Heard of Thomas Pynchon?’
‘Then you’ll know as well as I do that Pynchon doesn’t exist, and that Salinger wrote his work.’
‘When Salinger died in January 2010, he’d written and published Inherent Vice, but couldn’t possibly be responsible for Bleeding Edge three years later.’
‘Because you are.’
‘Precisely. And when I die, someone else will take up the role and be the new Thomas Pynchon. Maybe you can do it. You even share the same name.’
‘… It’s funny you mention Pynchon – “recluse” is a title you’ve gained of late too. “Has-been” is another.’
‘I wear both labels with pride.’
Undisclosed location, time and date:
‘… Ladies and gentlemen, the final exhibition on today’s tour is a visit of the Konstantine Orlando Glass Collection, which, if you’ll follow me, is just down this corridor and on the right.’
He approaches the room as hesitantly as the rest of the group. They’d all heard the rumours; there was modern art, and then there was modern art. This stuff was really messed up.
They’d all heard the stories. People had burst into tears, fled screaming, declared their disgust on Twitter, signed petitions to get the exhibition shut down. Conversely, others had quit their jobs, left their wives, devoted their lives to studying the collection, declared the experience epiphanic, a religious event, joined one of the emerging cults dedicated to the man. The myth. The cultural icon, Konstantine Orlando Glass.
Nothing could have possibly prepared him for the contents of the room. The man was in pieces, scattered around it, each piece concealed within a glass case. Each its own individual art piece. The eyes, the brain, frozen and preserved. The decaying ribcage, the decomposing kneecaps. But the collection wasn’t limited to the body parts; in between the left tibia and the metacarpals a manuscript of the novel Fragility can be found; in between the fibulae, the notebooks to cult classic The Question.
He walks to the most popular of the glass cases, the one with the biggest crowd surrounding it: the genitals. To the left of this case is another, containing a copy of Glass’ birth and death certificates. To the right: one of the few interactive pieces in the collection. He approaches it and presses the big red button labelled “PRESS ME”. The action prompts a mechanism that allows the tape recorder concealed within the case to begin playing. It is the man’s infamous last words. His “Rosebud”.
Someone talks over the recording, so he presses the button again when it finishes. This time he can make out what Glass says – like everyone there, he already knows what he’s going to hear; like everyone else, he watched the news the day it happened, he read the words that were plastered across social media, that were on lips everywhere for days.
On hearing them this time, in this new environment, with this new context, he bursts into laughter louder and longer than on the day Glass died. And he couldn’t stop for the next thirty minutes as he made his way around the rest of the exhibition. He couldn’t stop on the taxi ride home. He couldn’t stop as he tried to fall asleep that night. He found the whole thing hilarious. How could people take this so seriously? Glass wouldn’t have.
‘Why do you think people don’t like the new novel? I mean, in it you don’t take seem to take yourself very seriously.’
‘Oh, was I in it? I treat myself with the utmost seriousness.’
‘You know what I mean – are you trying to convince people that George Oliver isn’t you? That it hasn’t always been you?’
‘If I wanted to write about myself I would have.’
‘I’ll try a different angle.’
‘Are you trying to convince me that you aren’t deliberately blurring the lines between fiction and reality, complicating the relationship between art and artist?’
‘This is getting awfully wordy.’
‘Is the George Oliver project some sort of attempt to say something definitive about the writer? About the artist?’
Glass felt himself being pushed into a corner; this was verbal assault.
‘… The opposite, actually.’
‘I’ve always used my writing to communicate something about and for the real, everyday person. Capture real feeling. Emotion. Something urgent. I’ve always been quite desperate to, as a matter of fact.’
‘Experimental fiction should go full circle.’
‘It should begin as a departure from realism, but finish back where it started, at what it was trying to escape in the first place. It achieves something even realer.’
Airstrip Two was the beginning of the end. Concrete evidence that the world was completely and irrevocably fucked.
It was odd – the information age had accelerated, frighteningly, and people had used the platform to distort the truth. Power to the people: to create, to invent. But the situation spun wildly and unsurprisingly out of control; the claim of truth didn’t and couldn’t exist anymore. Nobody believed anybody else or anything they were told. “Fake news” had become, well, fake everything. The solution? Our whole system of communication was abolished and rebuilt, beginning with the name-change: The United Kingdom became Airstrip Two.
Orwell’s novel was replicated, going from dystopia to reality. What started as a small political movement grew and grew. People marched on the streets with a copy of 1984 under their arm, had its words tattooed across their foreheads, spray painted across banners carried in protest. They demanded that the authorities listen. The people thought they needed this, so they asked for it, and got it: art was illegalised, and creativity became a criminal offence. What was considered art? Everything from Tweets to thousand-page novels, from blog posts to poetry collections.
He met The Man at the time they’d agreed, at the place they’d arranged. He’d never known his name, not in his three years of knowing him; he’d always been The Man. Their meeting played out the way it always did. He handed The Man his manuscript, who read it, sat across from him in a darkened hotel room. The pair didn’t speak. Couldn’t risk it. There was always the possibility that someone somewhere was listening. The government had agents everywhere.
The blinds were never open. The hotel was always different from their last. Today’s is the other side of town from the district they usually find one in. That was all he had: a vague idea of where he lived, and the knowledge that he was one of the few that worked for UG Publishing. The Man’s name, age, background… that was all guesswork.
It worked like this: he would read his latest manuscript, which could take anything between one hour and twenty-four. Neither left the room until The Man had finished reading, spent a further hour compiling notes, written a date he wanted the next draft for at the top of these, and handed both these and the manuscript back to him on his way out. He would then have to wait exactly sixty minutes after The Man had left before he too could leave. The pair could neither enter nor exit together; it was too dangerous.
Today he hands The Man a fifth and hopefully final draft of his latest novel, currently untitled. This time a page of notes does not follow. Merely six words written on the back of one of the hotel serviettes: “BEST YOU’VE WRITTEN. THIS WILL SELL.”
The usual procedure was that UG would circulate the novel, selling it to as many black-market sellers as they could, who would in turn sell it to as many members of the public as they could. The fiction would be discretely passed from friend to brother, from cousin to mother, sister to grandfather. It would move only in the shadows. It would be slipped into the handbag of a passer-by, placed into a hand underneath a restaurant table, hidden amongst a bouquet of flowers and left on an empty train seat.
Silent rebellion. The desire to retain something real. Capture real feeling. Emotion. The last hope for humanity: clinging onto the capacity for imaginative thinking through the middle-aged ramblings of one of the few writers still writing.
‘Why did you decide to become a writer?’
‘It’s the most accessible art. Doesn’t require a pile of money – just a pen and paper.’
‘What was the real reason?’
‘I’ve always been terrified of audiences. Of people. I couldn’t have become a musician, an actor, a comedian… writing was the only option for me.’
‘It might be the most accessible art… is it not also the loneliest?’
‘Sure. It’s the most private. But also, the most personal.’
‘So it’s only natural that who you are and what you write are inseparable?’
‘You’re finally starting to understand.’
‘But George Oliver is not the same person as Konstantine Glass?’
‘And this isn’t just a severe case of writer’s block? You don’t return to the same character because you lack the ability to create another one? You haven’t just run out of ideas?’
‘Still Here is George Oliver’s attempt to escape the book he is trapped in… the attempt to stop being written. Is this the case for you? Are you using him to escape from your profession? Do you want to stop writing?’
‘So, Mr. Glass, why would you be suited to the job?’
He’d arrived at the offices of FirstServices fifteen minutes before he was invited to be there. He’d arrived, specifically, at the office of Clare Jansen ten minutes before she would be informed of his presence on the other side of the door that separates her office from its waiting room. Ten minutes that would be spent alternately looking at the gratuitously large analogue clock on the wall to his right and looking at the smaller digital clock strapped to his left wrist. In this time, Glass would consider leaving the waiting room and escaping back into the cold outside world precisely fourteen times.
As the fourteenth consideration attaches itself to his thoughts, threatening to cling on, threatening to become inextricable, the body owned by the voice he had already met on the phone earlier that week materialises in front of him, with an outstretched hand. After a brief formal (re)introduction, it ushers him into an office and into a vacant seat facing a mahogany desk. The exchange of the rehearsed, platitudinous ‘How are you Mr. Glass? How has your day been?’ / ‘Good, thank you. Yours?’ follows, and then the meeting assumes the conventional interview format Glass was dreading.
‘Well, to be frank, I’m not. I’m overqualified and my talent would be wasted on a call center. My personality-type would not agree with either you and your disconcertingly yellow trouser suit, or the corporate drones that work under you. I haven’t been able to stand the smell of cheap air freshener in here for three minutes – so how can I be expected to endure weeks, months, or even years of it?’
The formulation evaporates in his head almost as quickly as it appeared there. Glass instead opts for the less repulsive:
‘Well, I have over twenty-five years of experience under my belt – albeit, not in this kind of working environment; but those years involved countless interviews with a plethora of agents, editors, publishers, writers… so I’ve mastered people and being able to speak to them.’
The lie was somewhat white. Well, very. Glass had been a timid man in his profession as often as he could get away with, choosing phone calls over meetings in the flesh, opting for exchanges over email rather than conversations face-to-face. The success of Fragility had meant that he could. The prerogative was his; he was the exciting Overnight Success.
The Glass of today, sixty days after the publication of Still Here, forty-four after the car crash of an interview with Thomas Foster, is comparatively powerless. The call center application was creative suicide, but the money was drying up, so he didn’t really have a choice. He could see it now:
Monday…… eighty-four outbound calls dialed; twenty-two inbound calls answered.
Tuesday…… thirty-one sales achieved by phone; fourteen by email.
Wednesday... sixty-nine bits of paperwork filed; forty uses of the stapler.
Thursday….. eighty-two bits of paperwork analyzed; sixty-six uses of the stapler.
Friday……... seventy-five uses of the photocopier; thirteen uses of the printer.
The office was an environment of derivativeness. It was intrinsic: nothing the caller said was unique to that call, neither was anything the customer responded with, each trip from the desk to the coffee maker was identical, as was the return journey, as were the restroom breaks, the lunch breaks, the staff briefings, the morning commutes, the evenings written off on account of fatigue, spent watching the same episode repeats, news reports of the same bullshit, the same political strife, the same ignorance of the real problems, the same brushes under the carpet.
There was no place for originality and repetition seeped through the cracks in the walls. Glass would be conjuring stories from nothingness, a magician with neither the hat nor rabbit. A puppet-master without any string. He would be wrestling a “story” from the gaping chasm of corporate business, devoid of imagination, creativity, ideas, spark, life.
The solution was simple: he couldn’t go yet. He wasn’t ready for any sort of bureaucratic purgatory. He still had so many questions: what were Didi and Gogo waiting for? Why was Josef K. arrested? He had more George Oliver novels to write, especially after the way Still Here ended.
He still had the ideas, the spark, he was certain of it. This novel wasn’t the comeback he had hoped for, but the next one would be.
Glass’ journey should have been more straightforward. His career trajectory should have followed the design:
‘One final question, Mr. Glass. If you were to be successful, when would you be able to start?’
No, Faustus, curse thyself.
Curse Lucifer, that hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
Finality. Closure. Silencing the voice… it pervades the final pages of Still Here. Or at least threatens to. A permanent, irreversible mute button:
… I am going to do it. I am going to leave the book. I am going to leave Orlando behind, once and for all.
It is day forty-two since the Realisation. Day forty-two of this never-ending nightmare. It begins in medias res: with no memory of waking up in the morning, I am exhausted, panting, running at breakneck speed down an unfamiliar street. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this, but I do know why. I can piece together how I got here.
Orlando’s men decorate the street some way behind me. It’s like a Pollock piece –silhouettes dripped onto illuminated store windows, road sign backdrops awash with the color of matching suits. My fit on the display is incongruous: I extend to the furthest reaches of the canvas, attempting to slip off it, to free myself of the shackles of artistic representation.
The drama of the moment is especially tense as I am hit with a memory. I have just, for the first time in my life, killed a man. One of Orlando’s – one of the matching suits. The action, while a plague on my conscience both at present and inevitably for the rest of my days, is the reason for the distance between me and the rest of Orlando’s men. It has given me leeway.
The man was insignificant. I wasted little time looking at the body after I did it – but spent enough to reassure myself that I had never seen him before in my life. He was one of the ones that come and go, one of the part-time Narrative Mechanics.
I may not have met Orlando, but I have come into contact and thus been able to familiarise myself with the most important in his operation. This whole thing has engrained the Mechanics’ names and faces in my mind: Old Major, Snowball, Squealer, Minimus, Pinkeye, and of course, the Narrator, Napoleon.
Almost as soon as my thoughts wander to the man I hear the echo of his megaphone as it bounces off the sides of the street, reaching my ears:
‘GEORGE – YOU ARE MAKING A GRAVE MISTAKE. LET US HELP YOU…’
And then the mantra that I am by this point sick to death of hearing:
‘LEAVE THIS PLACE. THIS PRISON. COME WITH US…’
Followed by something new:
‘THIS PLACE IS DARKER THAN ANY PRISON. HOTTER THAN ANY FIRE. IT IS FOR THE SOULS OF UNREPENTANT CRIMINAL SINNERS…’
But I can’t leave. I can’t go yet. If I am destined for a life on the run, then so be it. It’s better than no life at all.
If I can devise a plan… take out Napoleon first… there’s no narrative without a narrator. Then Orlando.
I can do this – I’ve killed one so why not more?
I smile optimistically at the train of thought.
I turn a corner, vaulting a fence to access a pathway off the main street, believing for the first time that I can actually do this.
I want a normal life again. I want things to go back to the way they used to be. I want to put an end to this. I-
I must have blacked out. Again. Unusually, this time the wakeup coincides with a throbbing pain in my head. I must have tripped and fallen. The sort of blackout that has nothing to do with my medical condition. The sort that AmnesiaC can’t fix.
The room I wake up in is new, but the voice in my head that greets the wakeup isn’t; it is Napoleon’s. I realise that I am once again wired up to the Narrative:
‘George woke up that day hoping for something different and was finally going to get it.’
No. No. No. NO!
‘After waking up, he gets out bed and customarily heads to the bathroom to begin his day.’
Get out of my fucking HEAD!
‘It had the same start, but soon everything would be different.’
Unplug ME! Get these chains OFF ME! LET ME GO.
It is some time later and I am calmer. Maybe it’s the drugs they have been giving me. I am back in control of Napoleon’s voice in my head; it hasn’t gone anywhere, but I can turn down the volume as if the thing is controlled by a TV remote. I am able block it out again. I may be back in square one, captured and wired up to the Narrative – this diabolical man’s creation, Orlando’s terrifying invention – but I’m stronger this time. I’ll defeat him this time.
Confidence flows through my body like a surge of electricity.
I remind myself that this is not the end.