Versus

VERSUS
Nathan Laurer
Issue No. 10 – December 2015

Last night I dreamt I was a plagiarist. I was in graduate school in a U.S. university that was, you know, like my high school but not my high school. It was the end of the semester, I realized I hadn’t been attending my classes, I hadn’t even begun the major project that was due that day, and I didn’t actually know anything about postcolonial voices in contemporary English literature, because, you know, I don’t. I knew that I had to plagiarize an entire paper, like that was the natural thing to do. And that’s the weird part: it was like that was normal, the logical and correct thing. That’s who I was. In this dream I wasn’t me, I was this other guy who plagiarized as a matter of course.

I was in my room, kind of like my room that one semester at Antioch but, you know, not like that room. If I think about it, I wasn’t aware of being married, and I had that weird thing where, probably because I dropped out of high school, it was like, if I fail this semester I’ll lose my real job and lose the house, like that real panic-dream stuff.

There was no internet, but then I thought that it was better to copy out of a book anyway, and I had the perfect book to copy from but that thing happened that always happens when I try to read in my dreams where I can’t: like it’s blurry, or the page is like blindingly luminous, or the letters make no sense even though they should, like it must be after a stroke. And then I heard a British voice, calm and soothing; enveloping, like headphones. I looked and I saw Salman Rushdie, and he told me not to worry, he was a friend.

I was about to tell him how much I enjoyed his work, but then I remembered that I couldn’t get into Midnight’s Children and never even opened any of his other books even though they’ve been on the shelf for years now. (I guess I must have remembered being married at this point, right? They’re your books.) I don’t know, somehow it felt wrong if I’d only read that one, like, it would be bad to tell him that I’d only read that one, even though I’d really loved it. Anyway, it didn’t seem to matter because pretty much right away he set about trying to help me with my problem. He said he’d tell me what to` write.

So he started dictating to me. It was again that soothing perfect post-colonial accent of his filling my ears, and the words were so fluid that I quickly lost the ability to follow what he was saying. It became something other than English but with the same phonemes of English, like Dutch TV when you’re high, and the words coming off of my pen came out in strange new letters and markings. I lost control of my hand and it continued writing on its own. I don’t know how long that all went on for, but at some point I became aware of a strange feeling in my throat, like a numbness or a vibration or a fullness, and I looked down and saw that this like snakelike I don’t know tube or tunnel or I don’t know like a long strand of transparent goo was coming out of my mouth from deep inside of me. It distorted and diffracted the light and the stuff in the background, like those time arrow things in Donnie Darko. That’s what it was like: like a movie 3d computer graphic of like a snaking tube made out of water. Like that movie Sphere or Deep Star Six or whichever, the one about underwater aliens and one of them had a human face. But without the face. What I was feeling, though, was the movement of the thing being pulled out of my throat. It was weird but it wasn’t actually unpleasant. And I thought like, hey, if it’s not supposed to be inside of me I’m glad it’s getting out. I followed the length of the thing with my eyes and I saw that it was going right around to the back of Rushdie’s head and sort of phasing itself through his skull and into his brain. And then I thought he’s just taking my words. The vibration in my throat, the thing coming out of my mouth: that’s words, he was just dictating my own words back to me. And it felt like some really important revelation, you know, the way things in dreams can, and as I was noticing all of this and realizing what it meant, I was feeling this building excitement and lightness and like almost sexual sense of impending I don’t know something (which I think might have been an episode of apnea because this was all before you woke me up to put my snore machine on). Then afterwards, in the next part that I remember, everything had changed. It was like I was watching Salman Rushdie as like an omniscient observer, but then other times I was Salman Rushdie, or at least I was the protagonist in these events which were featuring Salman Rushdie whenever I wasn’t the protagonist.

***

Salman Rushdie’s best friend is a thirtysomething mixed-race lesbian graduate student with a weak grasp of postmodern literary theory belied by her mastery of the relevant terminology. Her name is Suzie. Suzie and Salman were having brunch in a sidewalk café just off the high street. Salman was having a fry-up. Suzie was having vegan buckwheat pancakes with jam. She was telling him about her half-finished dissertation on the subject of Pan-Asian and Asian-American appropriation of African-American cultural memes. “I’ve decided to take that article that got rejected last year on hip-hop appropriations of Hong Kong cinema tropes and rework it into a sixth chapter. I know it technically runs towards the opposite position to the rest of my theoretical framework,” She took a bite and chewed into her cheek as she continued to speak, “but I think I can make it work.” She swallowed with some difficulty, the pancakes were dry. “Oh!” washed it down with coffee, “I came up with the perfect title.”

The silence lasted long enough to draw Salman’s attention up from his plate to meet Suzie’s enthusiastic eyes. He spoke with his mouth full, “Um? What’s that?”

She smiled and theatrically extended her hands in front of her as if unfurling a banner reading the words “A Chink in the Black Knight’s Armour colon Pan-Asian and Asian-American Appropriation of African-American Cultural Memes.” She hung her mouth open as if gobsmacked by her own words. “I mean, do you love it or do you love it?”

Salman sat, rolled the title over in his mind for a moment. “That’s good,” he said flatly, “That’s really good.” As if from a great distance, the Adhan, as delivered by the artist formally known as Cat Stevens on his The Life Of The Last Prophet spoken word cd, softly sounded. “Sorry,” Salman said, as he pulled out his phone and the sound of the call became louder, “I’ve got to take this.” He snapped the phone open. “Hello, Saul, how are you?”

His literary agent had called to press him into making some difficult decisions that both men knew he would, left to his own devices, put off. Since leaving protective custody he found himself having trouble taking care of the day to day minutia of choice and action. Depression, they called it, but he knew it was something more. Depression was what he had experienced those first years in custody. God, what a nightmare that had been. It had taken the new book, The Moor’s Last Sigh, to pull him out. He owed everything to that one. It had saved his life as surely as the last book had tried to end it. Saul was trying to get him to commit, and he was being evasive. The conversation was setting him on edge and he couldn’t place why.

Salman rolled his eyes towards Suzie, pointed at the phone, and shook his head, smiling. Like most successful artists, Salman affected the performance of a love/hate relationship with the businesspeople who managed the financial aspects of his career. He was far from alone among his fellows in frequently joking, when they had a disagreement, that he had “no idea why (he had) hired that man.” In fact, Salman did not know that he actually did not know why he had hired that man.

Saul Mandelbaum, of the Mandelbaum Literary Agency, was a highly skilled and sought after negotiator and deal-maker. He knew, had worked with, and was respected by all of the right people in literary fiction, historical fiction, biography, and highly specific niche history publications for general audiences. He made money for his clients, a lot of money. He had sought Salman out, given a pitch which included several well thought-out ideas for the future, and he was entirely understanding that he would have to wait for Salman’s existing obligations to expire. This was not the reason why Salman Rushdie contracted Saul Mandelbaum to be his agent at the earliest opportunity.

Saul was eminently successful, top of his field. Born in Queens but moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of 14. Solidly middle-class, father a grocer turned logistic systems manager for California’s second-largest asparagus distributor, mother an elementary school music teacher, now retired. History B.A., Berkley, minor in Comp. Lit.; M.B.A., U.C.L.A. A few false starts in the intellectual property acquisitions end of the movie business were followed by a steady and well-earned rise through the publishing world. He incorporated as his own limited liability entity at the age of 30.

He was a thoroughly secular, firmly leftist thinker, like his parents. Read The Guardian online and The New York Times Sunday Edition on paper. Voted and donated democrat nationally, and did so by his well-informed conscience locally. One time he made a point of putting a glass down and telling the host why he did it when he found out that the delicious moscato had been produced in the Golan Heights. His daughters were both Bat Mitzvahed at the unconventionally orthodox age of twelve in the (very) Reform temple he and his wife were loosely attached to, really as more of a social and charitable club. He was especially proud of the fact that Rachel had chosen to deliver, in lieu of the Torah reading, an oral report on Talmudic values and ethics as they relate to the concept of collective punishment, but had to admit Minh had outdone her two years later with her flawless Hebrew recitation of The Law of The Plague, Leviticus 13, in its entirety. Little fucking wiseasses.

His wife, the radiologist, was a beautiful woman of Saigon Chinese descent. He wasn’t the type to run such numbers, but a review of his romantic history would reveal a greater than 60% skew towards an Asian-American demographic. His work car, the BMW Z series, had an automatic transmission, because what are we, cavemen? He was a sharp dresser, but never flashy. He looked a bit like that actor who always plays the stylish L.A. lawyer. He said things like “Salman, baby” on the telephone. He spoke like a normal person outside of his work environment. Unbeknownst to himself, Salman had hired Mandelbaum to function in his life as a living Jewish stereotype. Not toxic like the blood-drinking Hasid with his claws and his payots and his hooknose or the yarmulked cartoon shylock sucking the life out of an emaciated goyim family, but he was, in Salman’s unconscious estimation, just as thorough of a caricature: an embodiment of a generic mental image invoked by the word “Jew,” and for some reason Salman had sought out this thing and kept it close.

“Salman, baby,” his agent said, “this is unquestionably a ‘while the iron’s hot’ kind of situation. I know that this is going to be the first time in public since that thing with the guy, but that’s over now, you need to put that behind you.” He paused. He would have accepted a response from Salman but he didn’t require one. He continued. “We contained that shit. With the royalty agreement he’s got no reason to start anything and a whole pile of reasons not to. What are you afraid of? Nothing, that’s what. You’re Salman Fucking Rushdie. Author of the year, ninety-six. Whose book was the Booker of Bookers? Your brother buckin’ book was Booker of Bookers. Do I even need to start on the ?”

“No. No you do not need to start on the fatwa. Yes, you’re right of course. My life is in your able hands. Schedule away, and just tell me where and when to show up.” These conversations almost always ended this way.

“You’re beautiful, Salman. Don’t ever change. Bu-bye. Click.” Did anyone actually talk like that? The man defied belief.

“Sorry about ,” Salman said to Suzie, flipping his phone shut and dipping back into his eggs, which already were getting cold. “Don’t know why I hired that man.” Salman knew that Saul was absolutely right, was always absolutely right in these cases. He needed to get his face back out there. He needed to do readings. He needed to remind the world that he was still here, he was still writing, he was the source of the literature. It was the literature that mattered. The rest was sideshow. He forked a piece of turkey bacon.

“Hmmm?” Suzie began through a mouthful of food, pointing at the meat with her fork. “When did you go back on the flesh? I thought you were keeping it green.”

“I tried. I failed. This isn’t even the worst of it. For a month now, beef and lamb too, if the truth be told.” Almost a year ago, after a serious discussion with his GP over his serum triglycerides, Salman had resolved to limit his red meat intake. In the manner of addicts and compulsives, he found that his allowances for small quantities here and there were inevitably used as excuses and springboards for overindulgence, and so he found the best solution to be to cut meat entirely from his diet. Six month follow-up, his HDL still too low and his LDL too high, he began taking daily statins, but kept off the meat anyway. Slowly, in the customary sequence of fallen vegetarians, meat had worked its way back into his life. Fish and poultry were eased back in, at first just to be polite at other people’s dinner parties, then, he thought, well, that line’s been crossed, may as well keep at it. He was able to maintain for some months, but his will was weak. He was at a food counter one evening and, outside of his control, found his mouth forming the words “Doner kabob, please”, and it was over. The very next time he was at the Swiss Cottage Market with every intention of buying a boneless chicken breast, his hand reached towards a sirloin wrapped in waxed paper. Eventually, all pretense was gone and he resumed unashamed meat consumption.

“Beef, lamb? No swine, though?”

“A concession to my more vociferous critics,” he . Pork had somehow failed to find its way back onto his menu, still with the stated excuse of reducing corruptions in his vital humours. On the rare occasion a friend would call him out on this matter, he played it off with this same joke.

Suzie was just as uncomfortable with the joke as his other friends. He tended to avoid the fatwa talk when he could. Saul was the only one who could be trusted to joke about it freely. Most everyone else avoided the subject, both, he believed, out of concern for reawakening bad memories, as well as wanting to avoid giving the sense that they had a prurient interest in the matter. Which, of course, they had.

Salman was used to discussing it at this point. He knew he’d even have to write the whole damn thing down some day. As long as he was in control of the story he was comfortable telling it, some details at least. Whenever the subject did come up, he would put on a cheerful or serious face, as the situation required, and candidly discuss his protective captivity. He especially hated the idea that someone would know the extent to which thinking about it made him uncomfortable. He didn’t want his friends and acquaintances to know of his fear and weakness, however understandable they were in the context. At the heart of it was his shame.

It was so predictable, so common, so trite. To even call it cliché was cliché. The oppressed immigrant voices he defended wanted him dead, the police bullyboys he had vilified were his saviors. It was the eternal cartoon Marxist intellectual inevitably, deservedly, and laughably punched in the face on his first visit to a working class pub. And then he had capitulated so completely and so ineffectually, not just to the pigs, that he could have handled. The game has always been rigged, and when push comes to shove the State holds the highest power: of course he had to go to the pigs. But he gave in on the one point he should have held onto the strongest. He went and told them he had renewed his faith and renounced his blasphemy. He told them he loved Big Brother and it still didn’t help. And even that was cliché. Because of course he capitulated. It was the reasonable thing to do. Of course you tell a crazy person with a gun what he wants to hear rather than letting him shoot you. Of course you do.

The nights were the worst. As much as he hated the days with policemen his only company, the nights alone were so much worse. On the bad nights, he would spend hours clutching the bathroom sink, staring into the mirror. He was a vicious self-critic, but not a particularly creative or original one. It was the same old tired attacks over and over. “What kind of idea are you?” he spat out at the pudgy old paki in the looking glass. He hated the pedestrian irony of the words, of the moment, of the whole scene staged for no one’s benefit but his own. He hated that he wrote those words. He hated that he has failed to live up to those words. He hated that it was the inevitable outcome that he should fail to live up to those words, that those who write noble and true words are of a different class of humanity entirely from those who would die for them, that in fact the class of men who readily die for ideas are for a large part incapable of forming too many ideas of their own, that anyone who has ever said “while I disagree with your words, I will fight to the death for your right to say them” was talking bollocks because fighting to the death is an activity better suited to bigoted young men than to middle-aged intellectuals who think a great deal about free expression. But he hated more than anything that he would stand there looking into the mirror and remember that he hated those words, and that he wrote those words, and that he would say them, that he would stand there and say them as if to an audience, and there he was alone performing for himself. He hated that most of all.

Not all of his abuse and anger was self-directed. Salman began, after a couple of years under police protection, usually while drunk, to engage in acts of petty blasphemy. It began during a late night whiskey-sodden mirror monologue. His clouded mind was awash with images of the mindless faithful millions, and he spoke aloud, as if to them. “La ilaha.” A simple statement. A negation of faith. Not every night, but many nights, he would repeat this, as something of a ritual. After a time, he expanded this statement to his own partial Shahada: the Word of God, edited by Salman Rushdie to form a creed he could live by: “Ashadu an la ilaha.” I testify that there is no God. Sometimes he even said the full Shahada, spoken in the snarky overblown style typical of late 1980’s countercultural artifacts, that of the David Lynches, the Lydia Lunches, the brief period when sarcastic mockery had been mistaken for dramatic irony. Despite managing to put on a brave face for his protective detail most days, he very nearly went mad for a time. In retrospect, he considered, perhaps he had gone a bit mad, perhaps that would explain the terrible thing he had done.

The lieutenant in charge, not a bad sort, really, had been the one to contrive a change to Salman’s circumstances and routine. He’d seen the nervous ticks growing in frequency and amplitude. He’d received the daily reports of emotional outbursts and irritability. He’d counted whiskey bottles going in and out of inventory. Upon the move to the next safe house, budget cuts were cited and terribly sorry but we’ve got to consolidate operations here is your new roommate Giovanni Giraldi don’t worry it’s only temporary hey you two have something in common mister Giraldi is from India too innit. Telly’s not working? We’ll get right on that, sir.

As the lieutenant had predicted, Salman’s mother had raised too polite a man to allow him to remain in his brooding state. Giovanni was a fascinating man, with a fascinating story to tell. Born in Madras just after the second world war, he was the son of a local woman and an Italian father. Signor Giraldi senior was part of a small group of P.O.W.s brought over from North Africa who preferred to remain behind rather than potentially face war crimes proceedings or lynching if they were repatriated with their fellows. Using the same skills which had ensured his meteoric rise through Il Duce’s ranks, Signor Giraldi quickly established with these men one of the most brutal and efficient criminal enterprises in the city. Taking full advantage of the chaos surrounding Independence, the so-called Mafiosi di Madras expanded their small operation to major international drugs, arms, and human trafficking. Young Giovanni grew up in this environment. After a tragic and irreparable falling out with the family and the prison time which had resulted, Giovanni had gone on to work for the Hindu-fundamentalist Shiv Shena Party. He had stories, and the two men had nothing but time on their hands. Just as the lieutenant had hoped, the two weeks the men had spent together had a lasting effect on Salman. They seemed to have formed a real bond between them, and all the talk of sub-continental politics had awakened something in Salman. He was sad to see his new friend go off to testify and earn his allotment from the Crown Witness Relocation Scheme (somewhere in the North of Italy, Giovanni was praying), but the very same day Salman got out pen and paper and began creating something new. It was the one that would come to mean the most to him, the one that saved him, the one that brought him back.

Still, at night, the emptiness had remained. Although he had quit the whiskey at this point, Salman continued his practice of reciting for himself the sarcastic Shahada. He would twist his face into a childish sneer and say the words with a mocking sing-songy tone. Later, as the days and weeks of fear and uncertainty wore on him, these layers of vanity and performance fell away. So it was that one evening last year he looked in the bathroom mirror and into his own tired, puffy eyes, and realized as he spoke the words that there was no god but Allah, and that Mohammed was his prophet.

It was fucking terrible.

The spirit of God moved in him and he was otherwise unchanged. It was like some horrible locked-in-syndrome of the soul. He remained fully aware of the absurdity of faith, yet was helplessly in its thrall. It would have been better, it would have been simpler, if it had come upon him like madness or rabies; if the God that had come had been the life-consuming God of Impotence, who needed Man to defend him. But that was not to be. The God that came was the Reasonable God. It was the multifaceted jewel of the Dervish, and the facet that sparkled his way just happened to be the one called Allah. It was the God of The Lower East Side and Tin Pan Alley, who solved The Problem of Evil with a smile and a wry shrug and whose auto da fé was “Thou shall not eat lobster, why not?” It was the God of the Jesuit Scholar, who thoughtfully weighed each and every philosophical argument and just as thoughtfully disregarded them as irrelevant to the choice between the Grail and the Teapot. It was the God of California, who made no demands, who really didn’t know about quote organized religion unquote but still just felt really into spirituality right now. It was the God of White People that had filled the emptiness in Salman Rushdie’s soul. That was the worst part. He didn’t talk about it. Ever. He knew God didn’t mind, because He is so fucking reasonable.

Soon after his brunch with Suzie, courtesy of Saul, Salman was back on the festival circuit. After his first reading and meet-and-greet he had practically forgotten what it was he had been afraid of in the first place. These were his people. They loved him, hung on his every word, and no matter how long of a reading they had booked him for he always left them wanting more. He was riding high and nothing could stop him until he stepped up on the stage at the University of Exeter and his heart crashed as he saw him in the audience. Catching Salman’s eye, the man raised his crippled right hand, more Johnny Tremain than Moraes Zogoiby, and waved.

Salman never could figure out if Giovanni had planned the whole thing out. He had been perfectly pleasant five months earlier sitting across the table at Salman’s solicitors’ office. He claimed that it was all simple precautions he had read about in some “how-to-publish-your-novel” guide, his airtight legal evidence: a meticulous writer’s diary of the time they had spent together as well as the time spent working on the project which, if the diary was to be believed, was already in the form of an early completed draft at the time they met; several old drafts showing progressive revisions; multiple sealed copies of the final manuscript time-stamped by various government and private entities, one of which was presently unsealed and slid across the table for Salman’s solicitors to review.

Giovanni had said he was really sorry about the way that things had turned out. He had been too embarrassed to talk to The Salman Rushdie about his own modest literary ambitions. He claimed he never even knew that Salman had used his stories. It was only when one of many rejection letters had congratulated him on the size of his bollocks for attempting to plagiarize the most recent work of the winner of last year’s Nibbie for Author of the Year that he had realized what must have happened. Of course his version was a pale shadow of only part of the narrative of the The Moor’s Last Sigh, but it was still his story to tell. Salman had stolen his story.

It didn’t take long to determine that what Salman had done was not defensible. Giovanni’s solicitors leveraged a flat payout with a handsome percentage of the royalties. The publishers were kept in the dark but Salman had wanted Mandelbaum involved in damage control from the word go. Of course Giovanni submitted to a confidentiality clause. No one would ever know.

Salman finished his reading at Exeter with some difficulty, and was for the very first time grateful that he was one of the few people in the world who was immediately and unconditionally excused for appearing flustered or anxious in public. It was not even commented upon, except in empathetic whispers. He canceled his next several appearances and went into seclusion at his flat. And my dream left him there, writing for months in a gratuitously contrarian tone.

***

Salman dreamed up a strange new work, one attacking the sitting King of Siam as, among other things, a serial rapist and Machiavellian puppet-master of all of Southeast Asia’s atrocities. Naming names, he detailed violations of entire female family lines of Bangkok-Chinese restaurateurs. He painted heartrending pictures of trembling second daughters clutching paper sacks filled with take-away soups and curries, walking flanked by dead-eyed palace guards through golden doorways into chambers they only knew to be the places from which their once-giant Mothers returned forever changed: bent, meek, quieter except for the frequent jags of weeping. In increasingly poisonous prose, he laid forth a battery of charges against the now elderly monarch, culminating in the claim that His Majesty was in fact the highest authority behind the Red Khmer insurgency, all part of an elaborate plan to demonize international Maoism/Marxism.

The work became evermore complex. Pages were filled with detailed reports listing times, dates, and locations of in-person and proxy meetings and phone calls between His Majesty and high level Anka officials. Anecdotes suggesting possible code names of key figures, places, and events were cited, and seemingly innocuous documents were presented in light of these with sinister double-meanings laid bare. Conversations in jungle tents were transcribed. As Saul Mandelbaum skimmed over page after page from the large couriered envelope he had the distinct mental image of the author working from a psychotically elaborate half-wall corkboard covered with innumerable thumb-tacked photos and large words scrawled in magic marker on torn-off sheets of A4, all connected to one another in elaborate webs of at least three colors of string, such as are used in television to depict the mental work of master detectives or arch-paranoids.

Through Saul’s office window high above downtown Los Angeles, I looked out over the Hollywood Hills. I dreamt I saw a rising of two great powers in opposition, armies poised upon opposite sides of a narrow valley. On the one side were arrayed the proud forces of science and reason, and on the other stood a vast matrix of candyfloss and bile. The cords of candyfloss spread high up over the horizon like airplane contrails and traced patterns in the complex geometries of crop circles. And amongst the cacophony of voices blowing in on the sweet and sour wind I heard people speaking of airplane contrails and crop circles.

And as the candyfloss grew and spread in evermore complex configurations, I saw that everyone in the vicinity was drawn inside the web. Some were snared by kittens’ barbed claws, while others were stuck fast by inflamed clots of insoluble gluten, for the sweet ropey strands held all manner of traps and sucked with a false gravity which bent time and space. Once inside, they would submerge themselves in great brass tubs of bitter emulsifying humours. I saw that, on the opposite hilltop, those who had been numbered amongst the armies of reason, too, had run or been pulled across the no-man’s-land and were now enmeshed in the sticky web. Only as I narrowed my dreaming eyes was I able to see a single mid-sized open-plan office space on the now lonely hillcrest where a small group of men and women were frantically producing ropes of spun sugar, stopping only to vomit into large funnels. And then I woke up, or something.

That was the dream I had last night and everything is fiction in a dream and all likenesses of actual public figures were dreamt in a parodic manner, I guess. Except for King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. Seriously, fuck that guy. Every word is true.


Nathan Lauer is an American writer living in Hong Kong. Nathan writes novels and the occasional short piece in an effort to not look stupid next to his wife, the professor, whose career has taken him from his Western Massachusetts home to foreign societies like North Jersey, East Texas, and Philadelphia. An excerpt from his novel “Bardo” was included in the Spring 2015 edition of the Asia Literary Review.





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