Early one Saturday morning, Alan “Chester” McChester stood on the marbled concourse of London’s Victoria Station reading the newly expanded Vim section of The Daily Continent. Overhead, pigeons dipped and swerved occasionally like lazy aerialists, while every now and then the departures board in front of him rearranged itself, producing like a contented Sunday cricket crowd a gentle ripple of applause.
Chester’s ample body was still damp from his early morning bath. He had not had time for talc, and his one extant towel had smelled disconcertingly of sperm. Now in the mid-morning warmth he was beginning to perspire. He stuck a finger between the faux-wood buttons of his chartreuse bowling shirt and intercepted a drop of sweat as it passed between his breasts. He was also, as so often these days, hungry. The two rounds of toast and marmalade he had eaten barely an hour before had served, it seemed, mainly to antagonize his stomach, which was now producing high-pitched growls like a muzzled but still aggressive poodle. He eyed with longing the semicircle of fast-food outlets before him. The smell of croissants and kebab burgers filled the air, blending as it arrived at Chester’s nostrils with the richly artificial pong of apple shampoo (his hair was still wet and fell in chilly ringlets around his collar) and the cool, sinus-clearing menthol of his half-burned cigarette. Altogether the effect, Chester felt for a sudden moment, was unbearable. His mouth was drenched with saliva, his stomach felt not just empty but scoured, Brilloed, scraped entirely clean of any trace of food. The thought of Happy Meals, supersizing, 3 for 2s, filled his head.
He reached into his jacket pocket and finally found between paper clips, eroded bus tickets and pellets of laundered Kleenex half a tube of chocolate-flavored Slimkwik appetite suppressants.
He unwrapped one, no two, of the moist, fibrous cubes and threw them into his mouth. As the saccharin hit his bloodstream and the calorieless chocolate flavor coated his mouth like a wondrous dirty protest, Chester shuddered, closed his eyes for a second, then relaxed. The worst, he knew, was over, and soon the caffeine would take effect, rendering him as buoyantly lustless as a recent ejaculee.
He sighed with relief, listlessly checked his watch for the third or fourth time and frowned at the continuing nonappearance of his train. As he did so, his right hand semiconsciously sought out his gut, cupping and probing the surplus flesh as though searching for a key to its existence, some way perhaps to disentangle himself from it. Four years ago, at thirty-one, he had been slim, even skinny. Back then, not in truth so long ago as it seemed, his twin passions had been the flesh and the mind. More specifically, his loose-hipped girlfriend, Lucilla, and Carrying the Can, his PhD dissertation on television comedy. But ever since The Can had been published to quite favorable reviews, leading to both his appointment as Lecturer in Ocular Studies at the University of the Metropolis and, on the strength of his elation, to a proposal and consequent engagement to Lucilla, his feelings had begun to alter. All the energy he had once expended on lust and learning had been diverted into his feelings for food. He did not binge and purge, he was not exactly a problem eater, but dinner, he realized rather sadly, had become his favorite part of the day-more important than either the work that preceded it or the sex that, albeit less and less these days, came afterwards. The real turning point, he knew, although he shuddered to think of it, had come three years earlier, five months after the publication of The Can and as he was beginning research for his next book project, when it had become plain to Chester, suddenly and painfully plain, that he had reached the limits of his own cleverness. He was sitting in his office one afternoon reading an article on the phenomenology of video nasties when he realized with a start that it made no sense to him at all-the prose seemed, all of a sudden, as dense and pathless as an old-growth forest.
At first he had blamed his own distractedness: it was after all an unusually warm day; he had eaten a large cheese and pickle sandwich for lunch, and the sedative scent of cigarette smoke and overripe students was wafting in from the corridor outside. He gave his head a shake to clear it, muttered a few words of self-abuse and began the article again. After onJy two pages, however, he ground to another complete and awful halt.
It occurred to Chester, who was beginning to feel a panicked numbness in his extremities, that perhaps the author, nbt he, was at fault. XSTV was a well-respected journal, but mistakes were sometimes made. He consulted the list of contributors and was briefly cheered to learn that the article’s author taught in Eastern Europe-translation problems perhaps? His heart fell, however, when he read what followed: “Zoltan Zhlukov is the author of two books, Growling at the Millennium and The Lust in the Eyes of a Mtfitary Policeman, both published by Socio burger Press. He was recently a recipient of the Alfred Negas Genius Award.” The Socioburger Press? The Negas Genius Award? Those were as good as it got. Chester remembered now that Patrice LeConte, the feminist lexicographer who kept her ear to the ground on such things, had been talking up Zhlukov for months. Un cheval noir as she said in her stage French. Wasn’t he the leader of the Ruminoid Collective, widely held to be the future of ocular studies? Chester blanched. He began the article again but managed less than a page this time. Again.
But not even the first paragraph made sense. With each attempted reading the prose seemed to become thicker and more resilient. It was like watching cement harden.
By nine-thirty the corridors were dark and empty and in the Department of Ocular Studies the only sounds to be heard were the muffled thumping of a local thrash band from the student union across the road and, from beneath Chester’s office door, the thin dribble of Chester’s voice as he mumbled over and over to himself, half-mantra, half-curse, Zhlukov’s impenetrable opening words: “The television is language’s rectum.”
Another (a better?) man might have accepted this revelation with good grace, might even have found in such an event a sign that it was really time to develop other interests, marquetry perhaps, or ten-pin bowling. But Chester from his earliest years had relied so heavily on the unusualness of his mind to outweigh the shortcomings of his body and breeding that resignation was beyond him.
He had not been an attractive child, and his London upbringing had been brief and debilitating. His father, an electrical appliance salesman, was in himself a man of moderate wit and cheerfulness, but his profession had encouraged him to explore such unnatural extremes of affability that by the time he returned to the family home at six or seven o’clock he had nothing left for his wife and children but brevity and sourness. His mother was highly intelligent but utterly uneducated, and had been forced by economic necessity and the lack of a school certificate to take a series of dreary and dishonorable jobs at confectionary counters and work canteens.
She found it impossible to believe that her husband, whose work by comparison was full of interest and opportunity, was neither happy nor fulfilled, and she regarded his exhaustion, despondency and continual failure as instead a form of self-chosen madness. Their arguments would generally begin at teatime and last, with long periods of silent intermission, until eleven or twelve at night.
Chester was preserved during these difficult years only by his ferocious and leech-like concentration. While watching television or reading a book he would frequently drift into blank-faced and all but indestructible reveries. He felt at such times as though he had pushed his head through the sticky black skin of his family life and into a better, brighter world beyond. For others, however, he appeared to be in the grip of an enervating opiate. His sister Janet would yell in his ear, shake him and call out to her warring parents that “Chester’s gone all flat-faced again.” Several times his mother took him to a local specialist, Mr. Orthodox, to ask about epilepsy and catatonia.
Chester did not cultivate these trance-like states. Although they were pleasant, he, like his mother, feared that they were the sign of some cerebral peculiarity. When he arrived at Nuneaton Polytechnic, however, he realized quite quickly that they might be an advantage-the only one, indeed, he had. While other first years dabbled and skimmed, Chester ravished the library’s short-loan collection with a vampiric glee. By Easter, rumors of his tutorial performances had spread throughout the media studies department and were attracting towards him not only the gruff hellos of hairy lecturers and envious postgraduates but also, and much more marvelously for Chester, the attentions of a succession of serious, plain-faced and sexually exuberant young women. By the time he graduated three years later, Chester’s hair was dyed tar black and tweezed into a violently fashionable pompadour; he was experimenting with absinthe and writing scathing poststructuralist TV reviews for the Nuneaton Advertiser.
For a man with this history, the failure to decode the psychoanalytic phenomenology of an obscure Czech ocularist was more than a minor professional setback. It was a crack in the very concrete of his manhood. He could not move on.