Sunday, October 15, 2006

an extract from Jason Phereus: A room of his own!

Dave’s lucky. He found a flat in Holborn, not far from Russell Square, three or four years ago for eight hundred quid a month. Two rooms, one very big, small kitchen, smaller bathroom, in a characterless, modern, but suitably chalky-grey block. Of course, on Dave’s current wages he can’t afford to live there on his own anymore, so he occupies the largest room and sublets the smaller as a bedroom to whoever. At the moment it’s a Polish girl who’s, oh, long story, the friend of an ex-student’s older brother.

So he has his room. The most you can ask for in this city, to have a room of one’s own, but Dave’s room is posing him problems. The biggest being that he has too many books, too many by far. He’s a bibliaholic. Always has been, he reads while he’s cooking his meal, he reads while he’s eating it and of course he reads while he’s crapping it out. Not too extreme maybe, but Dave reads while he’s buying the food in the first place, while he’s watching films at the cinema, while he’s talking on the phone. He reads while he’s cleaning his teeth, while he’s doing press ups, while he’s masturbating, while swimming. Read in the bath, you’re normal, read in the shower, you’ve got problems, read in the communal shower at the Gym you go to try and burn off the pounds you’ve piled on from sitting around all day reading, and you may need to examine your habits.

That’s Dave, a compulsive purchaser of miscellaneous books, books on any and every subject as there is nothing, after all, that doesn’t interest Dave. Books that have to go somewhere to be stored, that shore up or slide down from each of his flat's four walls in banks and buttresses, that mound and hummock or tower in floor to ceiling columns. Every day there’s more. A mere eighteen months ago he decanted nearly all of his stash to his Dad’s attic, a mammoth three day endeavour that left them aching and ink-stained for weeks. There’s no more space there. So, it’s a problem. It’s a problem that he can’t go past Oxfam or Help the Aged or, god forbid, Quinto’s without diving in for a rummage and a root through the down-to-a-pound cellar stock, investing a couple of quid in say, Ortega Y Gasset’s “ Revolt of the Masses” in the original Spanish, or “Boriss Spaskeys 400 selected games” or “Chinese for your Trip” by Charles Berlitz.

A problem, a problem. A problem he had hoped to alleviate but may only have exacerbated with his scheme, result of an insomniac brainwave at four-thirty one Tuesday morning as he lay sweating on his futon, yes, the flesh may be weary but not all the books have been read, to create a number of mini-rooms within his own larger room by means of a series of curtains hung from rails attached to the high ceiling, creating a kind of mini-flat within his room, complete with a library and with bookcases that would rest against the curtain-walls, that could be found in curtain-alcoves and in the recessed end of curtain-corridors. He could transform his room, make it something between a mini-house and a grotto. What he needed, he decided rolling over on the futon and punching the pillow up into a ball under his head, was some books on Japanese house design.

Always more books. People ask him if he’s read all the books he has in his room, and he tells them of course not, no, but he has looked at all of them. What more can he do, given that he’s interested in everything? How is he supposed to pass them by, in the bookshops, be they second hand or remaindered, when they call out to him promising new worlds, new selves, even the simplest of them. Even the simplest of ideas creates a new self, he says. Others say, no, it just adds to the self and Dave asks them back, how can something be different, bigger if we can think about it in those terms and still be the same? The smallest of ideas, the tiniest unit of information alters the thing that absorbs it. Fundamentally? they ask and Dave says, but there is nothing fundamental, is there? And they mostly think, oh no, Dave’s off on one again, Dave’s talking rubbish, Dave’s lapsed into incoherence, but they don’t grasp it the way he does, they don’t grasp that they too are just information systems, much more than that too, but also really that, an information network constantly being added to and adapting itself, the ultimate Adaptive system, and that every new unit of info adds to the whole and creates a new functionality.

Maybe it’s because of the work he used to do that he tends to think this way. For a few years, straight after he’d completed his MSC in The Philosophy of Science, he had a job in IT. He had the run of his flat then, no need for lodgers, or at least he would have done if he’d ever been at home instead of working six days a week and spending every spare minute at the weekend out, trying to compensate for his job by drinking, dropping pills, not sleeping and searching somehow for a moment of pleasure, a high, a moment’s transcendence that could stand as a counterweight to the working week’s endless, weighty, anxious hours. A moment of freedom, just a moments real, true escape, a door opening somewhere at three am that he could slip through into peace and forgetfulness, a peace profound enough to compensate for the week's struggle. Where was that door? On the dancefloor? At the party, in that girl's arms, at the end of that backstreet, in a dealer’s pockets? Hunting down the night’s loose edges, hunting the crack, the fissure, the tear that he could pry his fingers into and work open just enough to slip outside all this for a moment. Maybe, he used to think, with more effort and more help he’d see it, that if he concentrated enough, maybe he could crack reality. Bang his brain hard enough against the front of his head, maybe something would open under the pressure.

Didn’t he see it one night, wasn’t it the night his mum died, the thirteenth of April 1998, on the dance floor of some club he can’t even remember, staring up at the ceiling, something opening before his eyes, a soft fold, a slow creasing as though the fabric of reality were slowly collapsing under its own weight, sagging, rain-soaked velvet thumbtacked over a broken window, Dave center- stage fretting the world’s tatty backdrop threadbare with the intensity of his gaze? And then it was gone and he awoke the next day sick with exhaustion, brain misfiring and spluttering, spitting sparks, singed, wretchedly on the cusp of the Big Come Down and vowing for real this time that he was going to have to change his way of living, saying it out loud to himself as the phone rang, only to discover that it was his dad, phoning from the hospital, and that now things had changed definitively, in the deepest of ways and forever.

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