It’s after midday and we’re sitting in a coffee shop. Leo is telling me all this a couple of days after his return from Prague. Everything about him is sombre.
And because Leo is a man of ideas, a man who knows things, I take him seriously when he talks like this. There is nothing glib or flippant about him, never has been. If Leo is worried about something then he has thought about it and there is good reason why he is worried. Also, there’s the fact that Leo is my friend from way back and he is going through something of a rough patch right now; I feel I owe him this attention. Prague was partially my idea and something about which I now have a bad conscience. Leo ran the idea of taking a trip abroad past me at a time when his whole life was a mess of confusion and I enthusiastically endorsed it. Now I am ashamed to admit that I did so for reasons which have little to do with wise counsel or friendship. The truth is that when Leo brought the idea to me I was tired of him. This was towards the end of summer and by then I had spent a full six months listening to him talking in anguished circles about the break up of his marriage. I had had enough – my patience was at an end.
I can tell from looking at him that his trip has not been restful.
He has been telling me a story about a woman he met in Prague. This woman, in her early twenties had some sort of device fitted in her chest which prevented her heart from stopping completely. No, not a pacemaker, something more sudden and aggressive than that. Seemingly whenever her heart rate falls below a certain threshold this gizmo kicks in with two hundred and fifty volts to restart it. She told him about it one day when he was sitting in a pub. To clinch the story she took his hand and put it inside her shirt to prove that it was indeed there.
‘Right here,’ Leo says, pointing to his own breast, ‘like a short length of flex running beneath her skin. I never felt anything like it.’
What makes this incident especially odd is that it echoes to an uncanny degree an encounter he had before he went away. To take his mind off his anguish I had turned over an assignment to him which entailed him writing a four hundred word article on the local chapter of a national beauty pageant – a no brainer in every way. All Leo had to do was turn up at the hotel and meet the girls, talk to them, get four hundred words of chatty colour; there was nothing difficult about it. And indeed the whole assignment had gone smoothly and Leo had returned to me the following day with four hundred words of expert blandness. But what had really caught his attention that night was one of the also rans in the competition. Midway through the evening an attractive art student had come onstage wearing a fluorescent boa and proceeded to tell a story of how she was lucky to be in the competition at all having only recently woke from a three week coma after a car accident. Whatever her motive in telling the story it had been enough to snag Leo’s attention. He sought her out backstage where she repeated the story. Towards the end, by way of proving her point, she took his fingers and ran them along the side of her head where he could make out the line of countersunk screws holding the titanium plate in place.
So Leo has been telling me that the last two women he has touched were, to one degree or another, suffused with metal.
‘I tell you,’ he repeats, ‘there’s something happening out there.’
I have no doubt that this rough patch is making Leo especially sensitive. His loneliness is so intense now that it comes off him like some sort of black radiance. I feel genuinely humble before it and any theory I have about him seems cheap and unworthy. But I can’t help wonder if there is not something of a beacon about him now, something in him which draws these women crossed with metal toward him. Or is there something generative about his plight, something which causes these women to bloom under his touch?
‘Ten percent of American citizens fulfil the definition of a cyborg,’ he now announces.
The flaw in the assertion is obvious but I speak quietly, as if I am placating a child.
‘This isn’t America, Leo.’
‘No, but I’ll tell you what this is; this is the city with the youngest demographic in the entire country and yet there is more spent here per head of population on cosmetic surgery than anywhere else. Did you know that there are women in this city who go to Dublin to get their hair done so that no one will see the stitches behind their ears?’
As it happens I know a little bit about this. Or, as much as I’m likely to know from a breakfast TV programme I saw a few days ago on the spread of cosmetic surgery and the lack of regulations and oversight in the trade. And I too was amazed, that in a city with such a young student population, there should be so much money spent on implants and augmentations and so on.
‘And,’ he continues, ‘forty percent of all surgery done in European hospitals has nothing to do with being curative or with alleviating pain; forty percent and rising.’
Leo lets the silence fall between us, giving me ample time to dwell on all this. But it’s all beyond me at the moment. I’m convinced now that Leo’s work has finally got to him; it has finally turned on him and consumed him. I’m not talking here about his work as a journalist but his bigger project, the one he has carried with him since his days as a graduate student – the composite biographical study of Antonin Artaud, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Theodore Rothke, the book he has provisionally titled Great Men Who Went Mad in the West; the beast has finally turned on him and consumed him. The thought fills me with misery on both our accounts but even as I think this I sense that I am losing interest in everything he has to say; something inside me is telling me that my work here is done, there is nothing more I can do. I do not know what exactly this means but I have a definite feeling that something important has run its course.
It is coming up to one o clock and the coffee shop is crowded. Up at the counter there is a queue of people reading the menu off the wall. Most of them are young women dressed in business suits or fashionable casual wear; career girls on their lunch break from the tax office at the corner or the fashion boutiques in the shopping centre across the way. I come here for breakfast two or three times a week and the constant traffic of these women is not the least of this place’s attractions.
‘They’re out there laughing to themselves, eying us up, I’m telling you. You mark my words, any day now, any day…’
If two months drinking in Prague is no one’s idea of time spent wandering in the desert there is nevertheless no doubt that it has taken a toll on Leo. And it shames me to realise that I have been looking at this for quite some time now – this man coming apart before my eyes, this gradual disintegration in slow motion. For two years or more I have watched as month by month Leo has shed all the gifts and promise which set him apart in my generation. And Leo was promising, make no mistake about that; Leo was the best of us. Leo’s gifts went beyond picking up academic gongs and laurels, all those minor triumphs which vindicated the rest of us. What enthralled us in Leo was the certainty that his gaze was fixed on some other prize far beyond these baubles. And he went some distance to confirming this for us when he abandoned his PhD in his late twenties. We interpreted this as the bold reckless flourish which underlined his superior spirit – he was leaving the academy for a life of independent thought and enquiry. He was our friend and we were assured that he was indeed engaged in some bold and great project, something which, when it was finally revealed we would pore over and marvel at while soaking up the rays of reflected glory. And when it was finally revealed that the book he was working on was this composite biography of as he put it, Great Men Who Went Mad in the West, it was not difficult to set aside a slight misgiving that this was not what we had expected. But who were we to doubt him; ours was not to question, we would keep the faith. Then, as the years passed and I saw him morph into the slovenly shambles he is now it became obvious that that the book had strangled his energies and left us with something less than we’d bargained for. And we stood around, obscurely shamed that there was something about a book or the serious business of adulthood which had exposed some weakness in one of us.
And I had not expected to see this, someone of my generation waylaid by something so pointedly destructive and now apparently irreversible. I cannot help but think that there is something especially vindictive about Leo’s condition now. It’s as if all his gifts and promise have drawn down a specific wrath, something calibrated and targeted on him with savage attentiveness. His condition is not to be confused with the run of the mill maladies to which we are all prone – depressions and melancholies. This is something of greater weight and consequence, almost as if it is ordained from on high. And that is strange too because Leo’s life has never been characterised by the kind of hubris or self regard which draws down such wrath. If anything, Leo has gone his own way completely without ego, a high minded disregard for himself. And now I wonder what does he make of it all; how aware is he of how far he has fallen from the promise of his youth. Whatever his awareness it seems to be totally without regret or recrimination. He sits across from me now in near complete forgetfulness of himself, carrying himself so heedlessly it is impossible to believe he has given any of this much thought. Nor has he spoken of his wife; sitting here for a full half an hour and he has yet to mention her.
I have talked to Maria about all this. Maria is Leo’s estranged wife and Maria and I do not get on; we never have. Right from the off she made it known to me that she saw something opportunistic in me and she did not shy of calling me a parasite to my face. I may have protested and tried to make a case for myself but I have no memory of it being successful. But I was prepared to set our historical antipathies aside for Leo’s sake. She would surely listen to me when I voiced my concerns. So I talked to her about all this, everything I see before me now, outlined all my misgivings. But I quickly saw that the longer I talked the more difficult she found it to hide her incredulity. When she spoke eventually it was through years of pent up vehemence. She began with a round of applause, her palms meeting each other in a slow derisive, rhythm. Heads turned in the restaurant.
‘Bravo you fucker,’ she hissed across the table, ‘one of your best performances and no doubt about it. Just the right measure of anxiety underscoring all that concern. And of course you’re timing – you’ve finally arrived at the moment when you can watch his destruction with a clear conscience. How long did that take? Two years? Longer?’
‘This isn’t about…’
‘Of course it is; it’s always about you, you and your kind, always so fucking needy. You and your kind were the ruin of Leo, hanging on his every word, driving him to his wit’s end with your expectations. I hope you are happy – some day you can tell me what it’s like to fuck up someone’s life like this.’
It was obvious that my attempt to conduct this meeting in a mood of shared solicitude was a forlorn hope. I knew enough about Maria to recognise that once her temper was up there was no reining her in.
‘You and your fucking kind, small minds afraid of the dark, hanging on his every word as if he had some message for the world.’
I lowered my head and let her vehemence pour over me. I did not attempt to cut across her speech…
‘Anyway,’ Leo now says, ‘how about your own work; are you busy?’ I tell him that I’m busy, bits and pieces admittedly but enough to keep me going for the next few months. I have a few hours teaching at the university and a weekly column with one of the city’s evening papers.
McGrane was also in his mid thirties but unlike us he carried his considerable weight with more assurance; his bulk was an entitlement, not the burden it was to both of us. His office was on the third floor and he was sitting behind a desk with his back to the large window which looked out over the bay; lit from behind by a low winter sun he did a passable job of rising up before me in a blaze of light. His pudgy hand was exactly what you’d expect from a man who would spend the next half hour talking with the blustery confidence of someone who had lain down his challenge to the world. He brushed aside my opening questions and went off on a startling tangent, absently riffing away behind steepled fingers on the threat to the existing order presented by his invention. He made it clear to me that such an epochal change to the world would not come without risks. He envisioned threats to himself and speculated on the possibility of being spirited away to some secluded facility at the behest of big oil or other vested interests. Sitting across the desk from him, the absolute degree to which I was excluded from these ruminations, allowed me to gauge the degree of hubris which so obviously possessed the man.
Leo’s face is fully open now, letting me know that I have his whole attention.
Leo runs his hand through his hair and lowers his gaze to the table. He stays like this a long time and when he finally looks up I am anxious to see that he is having trouble holding a straight face.
Leo is transported, wholly in thrall to the idea and whatever vista it has opened up in his mind’s eye. I am thinking of McGrane and that farcical interview. His pale face is vivid to me now, most especially in those intervals in which he riffed away on the possibility of threats to his personal safety. Now his detailed scenario of abduction, maltreatment and eventual disappearance has a different sense to it. As a paranoid fantasy it is prosaic; as a dream of crucifixion it is not unsubtle.
‘Did you hear that?’ Leo points towards the ceiling.
The one o clock news is on the overhead radio. The headlines pass in a blur of bad news; the stock market has suffered huge losses as four major banks slide towards insolvency; America has reported a severe rise in unemployment for the first quarter; the European central bank has issued a budget warning. Leo turns to me and spreads his hands.
‘This is what I am talking about; a chaos so deep and widespread it can only be resolved by divine intervention. And this is it, the Deus ex Machina, the god from the machine; techne and logos finally brought together. And its only right and fitting that He should come by way of the machine this time. He tried the flesh and blood route once – it ended badly as I remember.’
I should have known that Leo in his present state of mind would reason all this to eschatological ends. And even as he does I am not so sure how these things happen – I came to hear him tell me about his time abroad and now I hear him reasoning on the end of the world… A waitress passes behind Leo, carrying a large mug of coffee and bowl of salad. She rises up onto her toes, turning her hips to pass in the narrow space between tables and chairs. As she raises her arms her t-shirt rises up out of her jeans, exposing the lower part of her back. She is tanned and the fluff on her skin lies like brushed gold. Underneath the fluff she has one of those tattoos which have appeared on so many young women lately, right at the base of her spine, precisely where you imagine her whole nervous system converges and she is especially sensitive. I get the merest glimpse of it but even as it passes in a rhythmic blur it’s unmistakeable – a bar code tattoo complete with a row of digits beneath it. She moves on between the crowded tables towards a table near the window where she is lit by sunlight pouring in from the street. Lost in his own thoughts Leo sees nothing of this. He raises his hand and sweeps it through the air.
‘Electric women and redemption machines: the world is ripe for a miracle. All that’s needed now are men of good faith, true believers. Men like you Jimmy, men like me and you.’
And I’ve forgotten just how uneasy that makes me.
Mike McCormack comes from the west of Ireland and is the author of two story collections and three novels, the latest of which, Solar Bones, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. He has received numerous prizes, including a New York Times Book of the Year Award.