"A plague, and the possibility of losing one’s children to it, tears a family apart." That’s how I summarize the next novel, which I have begun three or four times in recent months. It’s a sentence that focuses me, that’s what I’ve found. It reins me in when the digressions start to pile up, as well as the florid prose. It’s somber and daunting and somehow thrilling too. I have it at the top of every page. Below are the first couple of pages from one of those starts. And because it's the beginning I don't have to set anything up. Treat this as something you might find between the seats on the train, with the cover ripped off. The published novel will probably contain only a few of these words (I know myself well) but I’m interested in documenting a bit more of the writing process this time. So I’ll check in once in a while, with an update, a set piece, or even a chapter. I’ll let you know about bits I’m pleased with, and the setbacks too. Good days and bad days. Okay, here we go. (The title, by the way, will undoubtedly change. For now I've stolen it from a favourite Bowie song, this one about the end of the earth.)
FIVE YEARS, A NOVEL
We approach a concrete warehouse near the water. That’s how it begins. Its four concrete storeys block the sun. Strapping suckers of weed maple and pale, glittering poplar paw at the old loading bays with their rusted aprons fat as bloody lips, and there is broken glass on the path, and everywhere there is graffiti. But we know that from Max’s studio on the third floor there is a good view of the river, and of the Woolen Mill too, which houses the offices of the local (and much-diminished) newspaper, as well as a climbing gym, and the three classrooms of a new private school. Carp twist and boil in the lurid green shallows of the Cataraqui, and a beaver drifts among them like a bored referee. The northernmost block of the warehouse is home to a store that sells reclaimed barn-board flooring and eco-friendly detergents and paints. There are also cabinetmakers and potters hidden in this warren, a blacksmith who specializes in fences and staircase spindles for the big homes along the St. Lawrence, and a host of sculptors and painters, conceptual artists and printers, mostly of middling talent.
We have been twice before to Max’s studio. Once it was for a party at which I felt conspicuous and awkward, a realtor in a room full of writers and painters, and then again a year ago we came to buy something small, whatever was most beautiful and also within our budget, and Max described us as “clients”. But I can’t remember now which of the battered steel doors leads to the correct staircase. One could become lost for hours. I would have plumped with reasonable confidence for entering on the west side but Sarah leads confidently to a scarlet door at the south end and sure enough, we are where we should be.
Off to our left sparks stream up from a welding pit. There are other men and women gathered around the artist, all of them in similar long masks. It is like something from a science fiction film, the way they turn towards each other in such exaggerated fashion to communicate an idea, an appreciation. The hallway smells of fire and wax and magnesium.
Sarah leads me up the stairs and along a corridor. At the end is a new-looking electrical panel mounted onto a rectangle of plywood, and a scarlet arrow stenciled onto the wall above it that points right. Sarah, though, goes left and then stops abruptly. “Here,” she announces.
Max offers to take our coats, and pours us coffee. He pulls various new works from shallow steel drawers and piles them carefully on a worktable.
“There’s a lot of stuff to get through,” he says. “Is that okay?”
And so for an hour, slightly longer, one impressive work after another is revealed. Occasionally Max will pin a larger piece to the wall so that we can stand back and appreciate it from a distance. He rotates one or two so that we are looking at them the right way. He is gentle with his explanations without being condescending, and gracious in how he accepts our praise, mostly Sarah’s. But the work really is uniformly impressive. Luminous ponds of weak-acid-washed mylar stacked upon more mylar; vivid encaustic grids sail-taped to veneers of balsa; naïve drawings of irritable winter wind on sly curves of salvaged auto glass. By the end of it I’ve decided that I hate Max a little, begrudge such an absurd concentration of talent. There has been casual mention of public commissions during these minutes, and of a month’s residency in Pennsylvania. There are, of course, people (men exclusively) who I hate more purely than I hate Max—the manager at the local Budget Truck Rental, for instance, and the asshole who sold me my Passat, passing off vinyl for leather, screaming at Sarah when she went to him for the second set of keys, nine months pregnant—but I still recognize this much-diluted form of the emotion, this homeopathic version of hatred.
When we descend the stairs again half the morning has gone, and the outside world strikes me as terrifically fleeting, and my own recent efforts in it uniformly unimpressive. The river’s surface is sliced open by the fin of a fat tumbling fish. A ruffle of wind dashes across the water and a second later arrives on our faces. An otter, rare in these parts now, scrambles up the bank and surprises a boy skimming flat stones into the bay. The kid launches his next rock unthinkingly in the animal’s direction, an articulate side-arm delivery that, stunningly, catches the otter flush on the side of its head. The animal cartwheels into the long grass like a race car leaving the track. In the moments afterward the world feels hollowed out and silenced, time is stilled, and then, the film restarting, the otter thrashes once more into the air, like an apostrophe of oil against a paper-white sky. It happens again, an electric seizure engulfing its length. The boy is stunned too, I can see that. He laughs awkwardly, almost hiccups, then lifts his Jays cap and runs a hand through his hair before replacing the cap. He spies us at the warehouse steps. He stuffs his hands into his pockets, but can’t bring himself to walk away. The three of us watch the long grass for more movement. It’s a horrible, shitty episode. Fish turn moodily in the water beyond. An iron-framed window somewhere above us is wound open. The scent drifting down of foreign cigarettes.
“Sarah has hidden her face. “Is it over? Tell me when it’s over.”
I think it is, and I tell her so. But as she peeks out the boy edges over, grimacing, and hooks the otter onto the footpath with his foot. After a moment’s consideration, an intake of breath, he brings a heel down hard on the otter’s head. The sound is as banal as that of a knuckle cracking but Sarah grabs at my arm. The kid shrugs, calls over unconvincingly: “Had no choice, man.” He bends, lifts the dead otter by its tail and bowls it back into the greenery. He swats irritatedly at his pant leg, which we can see from here has blood at the hem. He isn’t much older than our own son. Maybe they know each other. Maybe they throw stones together, or shoot hoops, swap stories in the schoolyard.