Cf. Richard Brautigan, “Sea, Sea Rider”
Of course, the man who ran the bookshop was magic. He was a three-legged crow on the dandelion side of the mountain. Or he was a shoe-gazing adolescent ingénue in a moleskin mini-skirt and pink Docs with a wicked ear for the rhythms of ordinary speech. Who talked Plath and Ted Hughes with equal enthusiasm but was evidently prone to cutting herself. Or he was a raffish-skinny Bostonian guy with a side-part who was outgrowing his grandfather’s tailored Brooks Brothers suit. You always noticed the white cotton socks above the pebbled Imperial wingtips. Or he could be, of course, a Jew and retired merchant seaman. It was all in the Options.
Whichever he was, he had always been torpedoed in the North Atlantic. Ask him — natty Post-Structuralist lecturer, Mock Turtle, or vintage blinking paperclip — he’d never deny it. And he’d always confirm he owned a Volkswagen.
He was Evel Knievel on a fucking Suzuki. God sent him. Ask him.
The bookshop was a louche Twenties tea house or a baking Victorian gingerbread garret or stacks in the Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin. The shop was cemetery and ongoing seance, and all that window dressing for the necropolis of works in the public domain in the four-year-old VR suite you’d dl’ed cracked from a zero-day site you don’t go to anymore since it shot your tablet full of something toxic enough to burn your most popular videos and music and nearly brick the device. Which wasn’t supposed to happen, since your tablet was made by the company that never gets viruses. Which everyone still says, even when everyone gets the viruses.
It was an old program full of writing and voices and enhanced archival footage of dead people, but the language was alive. The language was breath and mind in the Jewish merchant seaman and the paperclip. It was also where viruses come from. The cemetery wasn’t dead. In a way, it never stopped moving, even when you turned the tablet off. But nothing there could ever be new. Everything that moved was old and broken. Meaning the suite was jailbroken and at least four years old. When it came out, there was an MUD for registered users, but the publishers had closed it.
The broken version had virtues. You could take a goateed Beat from Haight Ashbury and put him yelping with his bongos in the eighteenth-century salon with Samuel Johnson or in the municipal library in Green Town, Illinois, where the little librarian with the cat-glasses would keep politely shushing him, finger to her lips. That was fun the first couple times you did it.
“So,” said the three-legged crow, his eyes twinkling like he’d been torpedoed in the North Atlantic and had lived to own a Volkswagen, “Would you like to get laid?”
“No.” you said, blinking.
“You’re wrong,” he said, like always. No matter who he was. Even when he was the precocious eleven-year-old girl who spies on her neighbors in Manhattan. Even when he was Jesus. Even when he was precocious eleven-year-old Jesus who spies on doormen on the way home from her private school in Manhattan.
Everything could be mashupped in the broken bookstore, but some things never changed. Over half the material was clothes-struggling, crotch-rubbing, whalebone-snapping, dry-humping, red-faced, wet and multiple-entry fucking. Or having it off. Or fingers straying to the mons of desire. Or doing the ‘Unspeakable’, which actually required a combination of complicated system settings to keep unspoken.
Back when there was an MUD, other readers could do it together as avatars and with the bookstore owner and repressed spinsters and gentlemen with risqué collections of hastily printed French tomes and etchings. Bachelors who begged to be flogged and frigged, the old beasts. But the customers had tended to do themselves and each other pretty much like characters in novels they liked, so it was hard to tell whether you were doing it with another paying reader or with a persona. That made the MUD unnecessary. And the jailbroken version took out the DRMs, so Jesus the Spy could do it with the boy wizard and the alliterative Irish laureate and the BDSM-loving farm girl from Prince Edward Island and all seven dwarves. In a sketchily re-digitized Emerald City square. With strap-ons and your favorite playlist. Which was fun the first four-hundred times.
Like all sexuality-exploring and erotic-health-enhancing applications, it started to feel sore and worn-out after a while. Going down on all the sisters in the Regency parsonage wasn’t much different from skull-fucking a sexy-zombie you took out quadded with the double-barrel in the romantic-survival-horror shooter on the tablet. Except there you were in an online community, and you knew you were doing it to somebody’s avatar, so someone felt the haptics — an aching pulse through fingers, shoulders, temples. It was everywhere and just got old. Everybody was like some blind, galvanized steel salmon battering the others as they bumped upstream. There is a still place at the end of it. After a while, you got enough. All that sank like Freeman’s elemental crowbar in the shallows. Like Gatsby in his pool.
The bookstore owner really wasn’t able to comprehend why you’d give up the chance to get laid again. Flashing one of those thirteen wry 8-bit perspectives that had seemed like the height of arch humor four years ago, the three-legged crow just skipped ahead to the epilogue of his bit, “I’ll tell you what just happened. . .” Cue cut-scenes, in-game highlights. Tarting up the experience.
“No. Really, don’t bother,” you said, blinking and scrunching your nose. Your cool fingertips skimmed the surface of the carbon-latticed glass. That’s not why you came here anymore, to the dead place that never stops moving. That’s mostly but not all about sex. “Read more of The Waste Land.”
The pixel-crow looked at you side-long, goggle-eyed from another pose, “T.S. Eliot’s The waste land. Harold Bloom, editor. Third updated edition, 2047.”
Your cool finger rode static over the screen that wasn’t even there. “No text. The audio file.”
“Readers currently trending for The Waste Land. . .” — the laughing crow meant trending four years ago— “Ralf Fiennes, Patti Smith, Fozzy Bear, He-Man, Master of the Universe, Bettie Boop . . .”
Touched. Stopped. Diverted. “The recording he did for Faber and Faber.”
“High-definition reconstruction of 1948 reading for broadcast, with film montage by Takeshi Takahashi.”
“Just the old recording. I like the weird acoustics. I’ll sit in your office chair by the register. No videos. Resume from bookmark.”
The three-legged crow who owns the bookstore flapped his sprite wings and leered indulgently at your peculiar but, no doubt, kinky request and then continued in the dead poet’s quavering voice that is a little androgynous and makes him sound a bit like the old woman remembering.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went . . .
Manny is an old-style literary academic/un-tenured ad hoc university comp instructor. He loves the smell of books and vinyl and even cds, though he has been building PCs since ’98.