Richard chats up Lauren
A week after they had met in the pub, Richard arranged to see Lauren at her home. She lived about a mile from his shop, on one of Harborne’s more tree-filled streets. The two of them were to discuss his theory and where books might fit into SNAPS.
For Richard, this was a potentially tricky encounter. This part of the suburb – all mossy waist-high walls, over-neat hedging, wide roads and refined, polite, dependable Victorian houses – was off his stomping ground. And sure enough, as he crunched up Lauren’s thickly gravelled drive, he was reminded of the knack she seemed to have of nudging him out of the carefully constructed spikiness of his comfort zone.
This time, however, Richard was determined to ignore any distractions that might come his way. It was his fancy for the Prof that mattered tonight, nothing else. It had to be. The last time Richard checked, libertines like him were enjoying sex on an almost daily basis. And it had been a long time since he had managed to get a slice of that particular amorality pie.
So long, in fact, that a more traditionally realistic man might have developed a complex about his lack of sexual success. But in this, if nothing else, Richard was an optimist. Besides, when it came to Lauren the signs were good. During their meeting in the pub he’d noticed the strained formality of her speech, the defensiveness of her body language. In his experience this was the behaviour of a sexual naif and sexual naifs were invariably more susceptible to his chat than those who had heard it all before.
Not to mention her choice of photography as a hobby. It was such a painfully solitary pursuit. What was all that about, unless it was the world’s most care-fully presented cry for help? The woman clearly needed saving from herself, and he was the man to do it…
To this end, Richard had made a plan. In his experience, his chance of meaningful interference with a woman was directly related to the quantity of alcohol consumed by each party. Notwithstanding the fact that most women would have to get drunk before they’d contemplate braving his rugged masculinity (which sometimes doubled as an Antipodean attention to personal hygiene), he would need it to produce the chat that would seal the deal. Now Richard knew his optimum wit level to be two bottles of wine. But he was no fool. Among those of mediocre intake – and he had Lauren down as one such novice – he knew that two bottles would be considered excessive.
This was where the plan came in. It was a simple plan. Richard was taking two bottles of wine with him to their meeting. After they had drunk the first between them he knew that Lauren would do the done thing and open one of her own. Between them they would therefore have drunk one each. At this point, rather than appear a lush-bum and offer to crack open his second bottle (and the third between them), he would instead offer it up as a gift. A gesture that would simultaneously show his generosity and throw the woman into a handy spin. And to make up the shortfall in the intake required for him to reach his optimum wit level? Why, fuck me if he wouldn’t simply polish off a bottle before leaving for their ren-dez-vous.
This he’d duly done, and with his plums replete on his thigh and his head pleasantly abuzz, he rang Lauren’s doorbell, blushed Slovenian Cab Sauv at the sight of her and was ushered through a Berber-rugged entrance hall into a living room of dark wood cabinets, tasselled rugs and sofas in mint and jade.
‘Before we start,’ said Richard, on a roll before he’d begun, ‘shall I open this? It’s a decent drop of French. None of that New World nonsense that the peasants sink. I thought it would, how you say, get the juices flowing? We could drink to the successful conclusion of our endeavours…’
‘Thank you but I won’t,’ said Lauren.
‘Oh,’ said Richard. ‘Oh, ah, oh.’
‘Are you OK?’ said Lauren. ‘Would you like a glass of water?’
‘Yes. I mean no. Are you sure?’ said Richard.
‘Yes. Thank you. But feel free…’
Richard had to think quickly. Of the relationship between sex and literature and wit and spontaneity and wine.
‘OK. Just the one.’
Lauren left the room and returned with a goblet the size of a toilet bowl. ‘So,’ she said, ‘what did you want to tell me about?’ Half an hour and two goblets later, Richard was opening his second bottle of the meeting and third of the night and had begun a denunciation of a ‘putrid aesthetic fashioned by the barely breathing morality of fools’. It was at this point that Lauren, who until then had seen no alternative to listening politely, cut in.
‘I’m sorry, but can I stop you there for a moment? As fascinating as this is, I didn’t ask you here for an abstract or theoretical debate about good or bad books. I asked you here because you’ve advanced an interesting theory about what might be the cause of the syndrome known as SNAPS. Now. When we were in Corfu, you commented on the manuscript the woman was reading when she collapsed. And the book her partner had with him. So. What, specifically, can you tell me about them?’
‘Well, the manuscript the woman was reading was a new novel by a bloke called Gary Sayles. The book the man was reading was an omnibus edition of his first three. They must have brought it out to tie in with his new one. Either that or it’s the International Year of the Moron.’
‘Hmm. And why do you think these novels have something to do with SNAPS? Are you familiar with the author?’
‘Do me a favour. I wouldn’t touch him with yours. He writes what is known in the trade as “male confessionals”. They’re books for people can’t read.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Reading isn’t just about forming words in your brain and linking them until they make the first sort of sense. That’s what children do. There’s more to it than that. It’s like writing; there’re bad readers and good readers. Male confessionals are for bad readers. Except, I suppose they are so obviously part of a broader cultural consensus you could allow yourself to be swept away with generosity and suggest they’re aimed at the merely mediocre.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Put it like this. I believe fiction should make people smart and dribble and blether and snort and gibber and hustle and ogle and fart. It should confront the terrible truths of the world. These books don’t. They’re all about young men afraid of commitment, middle-aged men having midlife crises. Not that there’s any-thing wrong with writing about marriage or suburban relationships or middle management types per se. But Jeez, it’s got to be done well. These aren’t. They rely on “recognition”, of “the sky was blue” variety. If I’m reading a book, I don’t want to be sitting there nod-ding like a dashboard dog, I want to be gazing in wild surmise. I want to be moved. And by that I don’t mean just emotionally manipulated, moved as in chasing my tail. I mean moved as in having my perceptions altered, my perspectives shifted. I want to be made to feel or think differently about life.’
‘Yes,’ said Lauren, ‘I think I get the picture. But to return to the matter in hand, I need something from you. To be precise, I need you to read the books. You said these “male confessionals” might be a contributing factor to SNAPS. Well, leaving aside for the moment your antipathy towards them, I don’t have any evidence to support this assertion. So I need to establish if there is something in the texts. Some peculiar combination of words or themes maybe. Something unique to this genre.’
‘I’ve already told you. There is. They’re the biggest sack of sh—’
‘—Yes, thank you. I heard. But this has to be an objective analysis.’
‘I’m not sure they’d stand up to much analysis. They’re just formulaic pus. The lowest common denominator—’
‘Wait! You said formulaic. You mean there’s some kind of formula?’
‘Yes. But then most novels have a formula. It’s just that some are more two plus two than E=MC squared. In this case, I’m not convinced that we need to nail the specifics. Isn’t it enough that they’re so generically bad? That was what I meant when I said it was the books. I mean the quality of the writing in these things is enough to send anyone off to the big sleep.’
‘The big sleep? It’s death we’re talking about here. Two people have lost their lives.’
Richard, who was still puppy-dog grateful for the opportunity to air his ‘putrid aesthetic’ chat, nearly allowed the implications of Lauren’s news to pass him by.
‘Yes, yes, I get it. Death. Very bad, yes. And I’m going to have to look at the books for you… Hang on a minute. Did you say two people have died? I thought it was just one?’
Lauren smiled and the thought occurred to Richard that she had been testing him, making sure he was paying attention. She told him that a British consular official who had helped with the investigation into the first death had himself later fallen victim to the syndrome. Not only that, but having spoken to the investigating authorities, she had established that he had ‘borrowed’ the manuscript from the first victim and had been reading it when he’d died.
‘Well, if these books really are the cause of this SNAPS, isn’t that a flaw in your plan?’ said Richard. ‘If I read them, who’s to say that I won’t cark it? Come to think of it, why can’t you read them yourself?’
‘Two reasonable points. Please let me explain. Firstly, although SNAPS has been called a spontaneous condition, it almost certainly isn’t. Think of it as a stroke. The axonal degradation that leads to the syndrome is caused by either long-term or concentrated exposure to whatever it is that compromises their continued function. Or look at it this way: as you say, this author’s first three books were bestsellers and yet this is the first anyone has heard of SNAPS. So despite the fact that their contents may help me to identify a causal link, it is extremely unlikely that reading the first three books in isolation – that is, with a large enough gap between each one – will have a deleterious effect on your brain function. Secondly, it’s been a long time since I read any fiction. You, I presume, read it all the time. And will therefore see patterns in the text that I may miss.’
‘OK, OK, you’re the boss,’ said Richard. ‘Could you tell me where your toilet is, please?’
Books by Charlie Hill will be published by Tindal Street on the 14th of November 2013.