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Authors: Christopher Isherwood

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BOOK: A Single Man
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A local newspaper editor has started a campaign against sex deviates (by which he means people like George). They are everywhere, he says; you can’t go into a bar any more, or a men’s room, or a public library, without seeing hideous sights. And they all, without exception, have syphilis. The existing laws against them, he says, are far too lenient.

A senator has recently made a speech, declaring that we should attack Cuba right now, with everything we’ve got, lest the Monroe Doctrine be held cheap and of no account. The senator does not deny that this will probably mean rocket-war. We must face this fact; the alternative is dishonour. We must be prepared to sacrifice three quarters of our population (including George).

It would be amusing, George thinks, to sneak into that apartment building at night, just before the tenants moved in, and spray all the walls of all the rooms with a specially prepared odorant which would be scarcely noticeable at first but which would gradually grow in strength until it reeked like rotting corpses. They would try to get rid of it with every deodorant known to science, but in vain; and when they had finally in desperation ripped out the plaster and woodwork, they would find that the girders themselves were stinking. They would abandon the place as the Khmers did Angkor; but its stink would grow and grow until you could smell it clear up the coast to Malibu. So at last the entire structure would have to be taken apart by workers in gas-masks and ground to powder and dumped far out
in the ocean. . . . Or perhaps it would be more practical to discover a kind of virus which would eat away whatever it is that makes metal hard. The advantage that this would have over the odorant would be that only a single injection in one spot would be necessary; for the virus would then eat through all the metal in the building. And then, when everybody had moved in and while a big housewarming party was in progress, the whole thing would sag and subside into a limp tangled heap, like spaghetti.

Then that newspaper editor, George thinks, how funny to kidnap him and the staff-writers responsible for the sex-deviate articles – and maybe also the Police Chief, and the head of the Vice Squad, and those ministers who endorsed the campaign from their pulpits – and take them all to a secret underground movie studio where, after a little persuasion – no doubt just showing them the red-hot pokers and pincers would be quite sufficient – they would perform every possible sexual act, in pairs and in groups, with a display of the utmost enjoyment. The film would then be developed and prints of it would be rushed to all the movie theatres. George’s assistants would chloroform the ushers so the lights couldn’t be turned up, lock the exits, overpower the projectionists, and proceed to run the film under the heading of Coming Attractions.

And as for that senator, wouldn’t it be rather amusing to —


(At this point, we see the eyebrows contract in a more than usually violent spasm, the mouth thin to knife-blade grimness.)

No. Amusing is
the word. These people are not amusing. They should never be dealt with amusingly. They understand only one language: brute force.

Therefore we must launch a campaign of systematic terror. In order to be effective, this will require an organisation of at least five hundred highly skilled killers and torturers, all dedicated individuals. The head of the organisation will draw up a list of clearly defined, simple objectives; such as the removal of that apartment building, the suppression of that newspaper, the retirement of that senator. They will then be dealt with in order, regardless of the time taken or the number of casualties. In each case, the principal criminal will first receive a polite note, signed
Uncle George
, explaining exactly what he must do before a certain deadline if he wants to stay alive. It will also be explained to him that Uncle George operates on the theory of guilt by association.

One minute after the deadline, the killing will begin. The execution of the principal criminal will be delayed for some weeks or months, to give him opportunity for reflection. Meanwhile, there will be daily reminders. His wife may be kidnapped, garotted, embalmed and seated in the living-room to await his return from the office. His children’s heads may arrive in cartons by mail, or tapes of the screams his relatives utter as they are tortured to death. His friends’ homes may be blown up in the night. Anyone who has ever known him will be in mortal danger.

When the organisation’s one hundred per cent efficiency has been demonstrated a sufficient number of times, the population will slowly begin to learn that
Uncle George’s will must be obeyed instantly and without question.

But does Uncle George
to be obeyed? Doesn’t he prefer to be defied, so he can go on killing and killing – since all these people are just vermin, and the more of them that die the better? All are, in the last analysis, responsible for Jim’s death; their words, their thoughts, their whole way of life willed it, even though they never knew he existed. But, when George gets in as deep as this, Jim hardly matters any more. Jim is nothing, now, but an excuse for hating three quarters of the population of America. . . . George’s jaws work, his teeth grind, as he chews and chews the cud of his hate.

But does George really hate all these people? Aren’t they themselves merely an excuse for hating? What
George’s hate, then? A stimulant – nothing more; though very bad for him, no doubt. Rage, resentment, spleen; of such is the vitality of middle age. If we say that he is quite crazy at this particular moment, then so, probably, are at least half a dozen others in these many cars around him; all slowing now as the traffic thickens, going downhill, under the bridge, up again past the Union Depot. . . . God! Here we are, downtown already! George comes up dazed to the surface, realising with a shock that the chauffeur-figure has broken a record; never before has it managed to get them this far entirely on its own. And this raises a disturbing question: is the chauffeur steadily becoming more and more of an individual? Is it getting ready to take over much larger areas of George’s life?

No time to worry about that now. In ten minutes they will have arrived on campus. In ten minutes, George will have to be George; the George they have named and will
recognise. So now he consciously applies himself to thinking their thoughts, getting into their mood. With the skill of a veteran, he rapidly puts on the psychological makeup for this role he must play.

No sooner have you turned off the freeway on to San Tomas Avenue than you are back in the tacky sleepy slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties, still convalescent from the depression, with no money to spare for fresh coats of paint. And how charming it is! An up-and-down terrain of steep little hills with white houses of cracked stucco perched insecurely on their sides and tops, it is made to look quaint rather than ugly by the mad hopelessly intertwisted cat’s cradle of wires and telephone poles. Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful. George would not care to live here, because they all blast all day long with their radios and television sets. But he would never find himself yelling at their children; because these people are not The Enemy. If they would ever accept George, they might even be allies. They never figure in the Uncle George fantasies.

The San Tomas State College campus is back on the other side of the freeway. You cross over to it by a bridge, back into the nowadays of destruction-reconstruction-destruction. Here the little hills have been trucked away bodily or had their tops sliced off by bulldozers, and the landscape is gashed with raw terraces. Tract upon tract of low-roofed dormitory-dwellings (invariably called
and described as
a new concept in living
) are being opened up as fast as they can be connected with the sewers and the power-lines. It is a
slander to say that they are identical; some have brown roofs, some green, and the tiles in their bathrooms come in several different colours. The tracts have their individuality, too – each one has a different name, of the kind that realtors can always be relied on to invent: Sky Acres, Vista Grande, Grovenor Heights.

The storm-centre of all this grading, shovelling, hauling and hammering is the college campus itself. A clean modern factory, brick and glass and big windows, already three quarters built, is being finished in a hysterical hurry. (The construction-noises are such that, in some classrooms, the professors can hardly be heard.) When the factory is fully operational, it will be able to process twenty thousand graduates. But, in less than ten years, it will have to cope with forty or fifty thousand. So then everything will be torn down again and built up twice as tall.

However, it is arguable that, by that time, the campus will be cut off from the outside world by its own parking lots, which will then form an impenetrable forest of cars abandoned in despair by the students during the weeklong traffic jams of the near future. Even now, the lots are half as big as the campus itself and so full that you have to drive around from one to another, in search of a last little space. Today, George is lucky. There is room for him on the lot nearest his classroom. George slips his parking-card into the slot (thereby offering a piece of circumstantial evidence that he
George); the barrier rises in spastic mechanical jerks, and he drives in.

George has been trying to train himself, lately, to recognise his students’ cars. (He is continually starting these self-improvement projects; sometimes it’s memory-training,
sometimes a new diet, sometimes just a vow to read some unreadable Hundredth Best Book. He seldom perseveres in any of them for long.) Today he is pleased to be able to spot three cars – not counting the auto-scooter which the Italian exchange-student, with a courage or provincialism bordering on insanity, rides up and down the freeway as though he were on the Via Veneto. There’s the beat-up not-so-white Ford coupe belonging to Tom Kugelman, on the back of which he has printed
Slow White
. There’s the Chinese Hawaiian boy’s grime-grey Pontiac, with one of those joke-stickers in the rear window:
The only ism I believe in is abstract expressionism
. The joke isn’t a joke in his particular case, because he really is an abstract painter. (Or is this some super-subtlety?) At all events, it seems incongruous that anyone with such a sweet chessycat smile and cream-smooth skin and cat-clean neatness could produce such gloomy muddy canvases or own such a filthy car. He has the beautiful name of Alexander Mong. And there’s the well-waxed spotless scarlet MG, driven by Buddy Sorensen, the wild watery-eyed albino who is a basketball star and wears a
ban the bomb
button. George has caught glimpses of Buddy streaking past on the freeway, laughing to himself as if the absurd little sitzbath of a thing had run away with him, and he didn’t care.

So now George has arrived. He is not nervous in the least. As he gets out of his car, he feels an upsurge of energy, of eagerness for the play to begin. And he walks eagerly, with a springy step, along the gravel path past the Music Building towards the Department Office. He is all actor now; an actor on his way up from the dressing-room, hastening through the backstage world of props
and lamps and stagehands to make his entrance. A veteran, calm and assured, he pauses for a well-measured moment in the doorway of the office and then, boldly, clearly, with the subtly modulated British intonation which his public demands of him, speaks his opening line, ‘Good morning!’

And the three secretaries – each one of them a charming and accomplished actress in her own chosen style – recognise him instantly, without even a flicker of doubt, and reply ‘Good morning!’ to him. (There is something religious here, like responses in church; a reaffirmation of faith in the basic American dogma, that it is, always, a
Morning. Good, despite the Russians and their rockets, and all the ills and worries of the flesh. For of course we know, don’t we, that the Russians and the worries are not really real? They can be unthought and made to vanish. And therefore the morning can be made to be good. Very well then, it

Every teacher in the English Department has his or her pigeon-hole in this office, and all of them are stuffed with papers. What a mania for communication! A notice of the least important committee meeting on the most trivial of subjects will be run off and distributed in hundreds of copies. Everybody is informed of everything. George glances through them all and then tosses the lot into the waste-basket, with one exception: an oblong card slotted and slitted and ciphered by an IBM machine, expressing some poor bastard of a student’s academic identity. Indeed, this card
his identity. Suppose, instead of signing it as requested and returning it to the Personnel Office, George were to tear it up? Instantly, that student would cease to exist, as far as San Tomas State was
concerned. He would become academically invisible, and only reappear with the very greatest difficulty, after performing the most elaborate propitiation ceremonies; countless offerings of forms filled out in triplicate and notarised affidavits to the gods of the IBM.

George signs the card, holding it steady with two fingertips. He dislikes even to touch these things, for they are the runes of an idiotic but nevertheless potent and evil magic; the magic of the think-machine gods, whose cult has one dogma,
we cannot make a mistake
. Their magic consists in this, that whenever they do make a mistake, which is quite often, it is perpetuated and thereby becomes a non-mistake. . . . Carrying the card by its extreme corner, George brings it over to one of the secretaries, who will see that it gets back to Personnel. The secretary has a nail-file on her desk. George picks it up, saying, ‘Let’s see if that old robot’ll know the difference’ and pretends to be about to punch another slit in the card. The girl laughs, but only after a split-second look of sheer terror; and the laugh itself is forced. George has uttered blasphemy.

BOOK: A Single Man
13.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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