The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith


  Afterwards they had rested, his head on her stomach, both of them still weeping, too loudly, too deeply, the din of it ripping something in his head. But even that had gone eventually, and there had been silence and he had tried to kiss her and she had not allowed it.

  That was when he had taken his bag and left the room, the house, the town, the life.

  I miss her, too.

  Behind Frank, the projector stuttered and whirred, light springing to the screen and sound this time along with it. He fumbled into his pocket and found his phone, turned it off. That way he wouldn’t know when it didn’t ring, kept on not ringing.

  Frank tipped back his head and watched the opening titles, the mist, the trees, the older man’s face as it spoke to the small girl’s, as he spoke to his daughter, while the world turned unreliable and salt. And the film reeled on and he knew that it would finish and knew that when it did he would want nothing more than to start it again.

  Gideon

  ZZ Packer

  You know what I mean? I was nineteen and crazy back then. I’d met this Jewish guy with this really Jewish name: Gideon. He had hair like an Afro wig and a nervous smile that kept unfolding quickly, like origami. He was one of those white guys who had a thing for black women, but he’d apparently been too afraid to ask out anyone, until he met me.

  That one day, when it all began to unravel, Gideon was working on his dissertation, which meant he was in cutoffs in bed with me, the fan whirring over us while he was getting political about something or other. He was always getting political, even though his Ph.D. had nothing to do with politics and was called ‘Temporal Modes of Discourse and Ekphrasis in Elizabethan Poetry’. Even he didn’t like his dissertation. He was always opening some musty book, reading it for a while, then closing it and saying, ‘You know what’s wrong with these fascist corporations?’ No matter how you responded, you’d always be wrong because he’d say, ‘Exactly!’ then go on to tell you his theory, which had nothing to do with anything you’d just said.

  He was philosophizing, per usual, all worked up with nervous energy while feeding our crickets. ‘And you,’ he said, unscrewing a cricket jar, looking at the cricket but speaking to me, ‘you think the neo-industrial complex doesn’t pertain to you, but it does, because by tacitly participating blah blah blah you’re engaging in blah blah commodification of workers blah blah blah allowing the neo-Reaganites to blah blah blah but you can’t escape the dialectic.’

  His thing that summer was crickets, I don’t know why. Maybe it was something about the way they formed an orchestra at night. All around our bed, with the sky too hot and the torn screen windows, all you could hear were those damn crickets, moving their muscular little thighs and wings to make music. He would stick his nose out the window and smell the air. Sometimes he would go out barefoot with a flashlight and try to catch a cricket. If he was successful, he’d put it in one of those little jars - jars that once held gourmet items like tapenade and aïoli. I’d never heard of these things before, but with Gideon, I’d find myself eating tapenade on fancy stale bread one night, and the next night we’d rinse out the jar and voilà, a cricket would be living in it.

  Whenever he’d come back to bed from gathering crickets, he’d try to wedge his cold skinny body around my fetal position. ‘Come closer,’ he’d say. And I’d want to and then again I wouldn’t want to. He always smelled different after being outside. Like a farm animal, or watercress. Plus he had a ton of calluses.

  Sometimes I’d stare in the mid-darkness at how white he was. If I pressed his skin, he’d bruise deep fuchsia and you’d be able to see it even in the dark. I was very dark compared to him. He was so white it was freaky, sometimes. Othertimes it was kind of cool and beautiful, how his skin would glow against mine, how our bodies together looked like art.

  Well, that one day - after he’d railed against the Federal Reserve Board, NAFTA, the gun lobby and the neo-industrial complex - we fed the crickets and went to bed. When I say went to bed, I mean, we made love. I used to call it sex, but Gideon said I might as well call it rape. Making love was all about the mind. One time, in a position that would have been beautiful art, he said, ‘Look at me. Really look at me.’ I didn’t like looking at people when I did it, like those tribes afraid part of their soul will peel away if someone takes a picture of them. When Gideon and I did lock eyes, I must admit, it felt different. Like we were - for a moment - part of the same picture.

  That night, we did it again. I couldn’t say for sure if the condom broke or not, but it all felt weird, and Gideon said, ‘The whole condom-breaking-thing is a myth.’ But we looked at it under the light, the condom looking all dead and slimy, and finally he threw the thing across the room, where it stuck to the wall like a slug, then fell. ‘Fucking Freestyles! Who the hell buys fucking Freestyles?’

  ‘They’re free at the clinic,’ I said. ‘What do you want, organic condoms?’ We looked it over again but that didn’t stop it from being broke. Then Gideon made a look that just about sent me over the edge.

  I had to think. I went in the bathroom and sat on the toilet. I’d done everything right. I hadn’t gotten pregnant or done drugs or hurt anybody. I had a little life, working at Pita Delicious, serving up burgers and falafel. Almost everything there was awful, but the falafels weren’t half bad. It was at Pita Delicious that I first met Gideon with his bobbing nosetip and Afro-Jewish hair. The Syrian guys who owned the place always made me go and talk to him, because they didn’t like him. The first couple of times he came in he’d tried talking to them about the Middle East and the Palestinians and whatnot. Even though he was on their side, they still hated him. ‘Talk to the Jew,’ they said, whenever he came in. Soon we were eating falafels on my break, with Gideon helping me plot out how I was going to go back to school, which was just a figure of speech because I hadn’t entered school in the first place.

  When I came back to bed, Gideon was splayed out on top of the blanket, slices of moonlight on his bony body. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Let’s get a pregnancy test.’

  ‘Don’t you know anything? It’s not going to work immediately.’ He made a weird face, and asked, ‘Is this the voice of experience talking?’

  I looked at him. ‘Everyone knows,’ I said, trying to sound calm and condescending, ‘that it’s your first missed period.’

  He mouthed Okay, real slowly, like I was the crazy one.

  When my period went AWOL, I took the pregnancy test in the bathroom at Pita Delicious. I don’t know why. I guess I didn’t want Gideon hovering over me. I didn’t even tell him when I was going to do it. One pink stripe. Negative. I should have been relieved, relieved to have my lame life back, but the surprising thing was that I wasn’t. Then I did something I never thought I’d do, something unlike anything I’ve ever done before: it was really simple to get a pink marker, and take off the plastic cover and draw another little stripe. Two stripes, the test said, means you’re pregnant.

  When I got back home, I told him the test was positive, and flicked it into his lap: ‘What do you care?’

  I told him that I didn’t know what I was going to do - what we were going to do. He paced in front of the crickets for a while. Then he put his arm around me, like I’d just told him I had AIDS and he’d mustered the courage to give me a hug.

  ‘What’re we gonna do?’ I asked. I don’t know what I expected - whether I thought I’d catch him in a lie, or he’d say something about not wanting the baby, or what - I forgot. All I knew was that something was pressing down on me, drowning me. If he’d said anything, anything at all, I would have been fine. If he’d start talking about the dialectic or about mesothelioma or aïoli or how many types of cancer you could get from one little Newport menthol - I’d have been all right. Even if he cursed me out and blamed me and said he didn’t want the baby - I’d have understood.

  But he didn’t say anything. I saw everything he was thinking, though. I saw him thinking about his parents - Sy and Rita - growing worried in thei
r condo’s sunny Sarasota kitchen; I saw him never finishing his thesis and going to work for some grubby non-profit where everyone ate tempeh and couldn’t wear leather and almost had a Ph.D.; I saw him hauling the kid around to parks, saying it was the best thing he’d ever done. Really. The best.

  I walked out of that room, out of that house he rented with its really nice wood everywhere. I kept walking away, quickly at first, then so fast that the tears were the only thing keeping me from burning myself out like a comet. I wasn’t running from Gideon anymore, but even if he was following me, it was too late. Even with no baby, I could see there’d be no day when I’d meet Sy and Rita, no day when I’d quit Pita Delicious before they quit me, no day when I’d hang around a table of students talking about post-post-feminism, no day when Gideon and I would lock hands in front of the house we’d just bought. Anyone could have told him it was too late for that, for us, but Gideon was Gideon, and I could hear him calling after me, hoping the way he always did that the words would do the chasing for him.

  Gordon

  Andrew O’Hagan

  1. Pride

  They say Gordon nearly lost an eye in the 1950s, playing football by a slagheap on the edge of Kirkcaldy. ‘Never mind,’ said his father on the walk back from the Infirmary. ‘We’re all half blind in the face of Divinity.’ Gordon felt a painful nip under the nurse’s bandage and saw a presentation of cold stars in the road’s tarmac. Years later he remembered that walk home and the way he had felt proud at the perfect ordinariness of his school shoes. ‘That’s a likeable person, that doctor,’ his father had said with a cough as Gordon walked out in front. ‘He knows how to be a doctor. He believes every man must suffer a little damage.’

  2. Romance

  There was a linoleum factory up on the main road and Gordon could see it smoking from his room at the manse. He always had that strange ability - one emboldened by his reading of books and plays - to conjure some kind of high romance out of an industrial scene, though neither of his brothers had time for books, being busy all the while with haircuts and phone calls. Gordon would memorize quotations and say them to himself under the bathwater with his ears crowding around with noise. His eye was better by then and his father was deeper in league with the Lord. Gordon would stand in the talcum-powdered air of the bathroom muttering calculations and strange moral sums about the cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness. His mother knew her second son was bound for Edinburgh when he came down one evening with a sullen face. ‘The problem in Hamlet is the ghost,’ he said. ‘He’s imprudent. He’s unwise. You can’t command a person’s conscience. And by forcing a family into action you kill them all.’

  3. Value

  Baked beans became a subject for a while. Gordon worked out that each bean had a certain value to the world, but he felt it curious that some beans were eager for their own preferment. On toast, some of those beans had a truly remarkable orange lustre, and it seemed the biggest beans exactly understood - in a way the pulpy and burst ones certainly did not - what their role might be in the perfect meal. At his student flat in the Grassmarket, the dishes were known to pile up in the general desolation of a Belfast sink, but Gordon was busy accommodating the facts of life to a nourishing vision of the future. He never got drunk because he feared more than anything a loss of control, and so, on Friday nights, as the squads of local boys went skidding up the Lothian Road fuelled by pints of lager, Gordon would be inside the Cameo watching old movies about blind pianists or soldiers mangled by war and self-consciousness. He often picked up a bag of chips amid the broad, late-night fraternity of the Grassmarket, and would cradle them up the tenement stairs to have with his beans. That was the essence of his student years: the vapour of warm newspaper soaked in patches of vinegar.

  4. Reason

  That’s a terrible black sloshing out there in the North Sea. The very idea of people being trapped on those oil rigs for weeks at a time began to unsettle Gordon’s sense of the perfectly deployed and the reasonably useful life, but then again the 1960s offered a vista of possibilities for the modernizing of Scotland, and it looked as if oil might certainly have its part to play in all that. It was just, to Gordon, that the substance itself seemed to be so little separate from the conditions of its retrieval. Dark, I mean. All dark. And he couldn’t get away from that notion of living men with healthy bones using machines to suck out the dead carbon liquor of the earth. ‘Wasn’t that a wee bit on the savage side?’ He said this several times to a girl he met for coffee at the George Hotel, and she paid close attention with her beautiful green eyes before saying she had better get going or she was liable to miss her bus.

  5. Form

  He saw copies of his first book in the window of a leftist bookshop in Glasgow and had to admit he felt a tear forming in the corner of his better eye. He had captured - as was readily admitted by the Greenock Telegraph - the often under-described lives of Scottish old-age pensioners in the second half of the century, and had done so in a prose of untrammelled epic beauty. He had invented a fragmentary style that was best suited to capture the frayed lives of his subjects, and the Dundee Courier, having caught Gordon presenting his findings to a formal gathering of accountants at the rear of Milne’s Bar, was ready and indeed very able to form the view that the author showed considerable form as an orator.

  6. Sensibility

  Gordon was forever finding restaurant receipts in the pockets of his suits or stuffed in his wallet. Sometimes they weren’t receipts exactly but yellow Switch carbons, indicating how much he’d spent and whether service was included but not particularly saying what had been ordered. Over recent years he had developed an active resentment against fizzy water. When the taxi brought him back one night to Millbank, he pondered that Islington drink, and watched the news with a growing sense of hatred.

  7. Enlightenment

  There is a statue of Adam Smith that stands in a fork in the road across from the church where Gordon’s father once presided. The son always thought of the memorial as a thing covered in snow, though in truth the Scottish sun was always more likely to pour down its benisons on that noble pate, that head with the world-sized mind within, the very image of it leading out the brilliant and patient sons of Kirkcaldy. Gordon went back to look at the statue after his father’s death in 1998. It was indeed snowing that particular day, and Gordon looked at the stone Adam Smith as if he might discover some marks on that famous countenance left there by his own former scrutiny. Gordon fancied the tenets of the Enlightenment might in fact offer a suggestion about how to live. He saw too little of himself in Smith’s face, but felt the statue looked altogether smaller than how he remembered it back in the days of the school certificate and the worries of Higher English. There was no one about at that early hour, but Gordon instructed his driver to go if he would and see if he couldn’t bring a ladder from the church hall.

  8. Politics

  London is a smear of buses and chances in the afternoon. How colourful too is the capital city, how full of the foreign arts. Right at the opening to Horse Guards Parade a soldier stands on his horse wearing the helmet and red tunic, his sword resting on his right shoulder, the tourists taking their pictures and laughing at duty. A blonde girl from Athens, Georgia, and her friend threaten all of a sudden to climb up and draw on the guard with lipstick. They whisper to one another about how it is against the rules for him to speak and about how he can’t move too much either. The guard simply stands there as if their dreams were none of his business. The guard can hardly hear them in fact, and he merely feels tired at the base of his spine and is gagging for a pint. He wonders if his wife made it to the supermarket, and isn’t there a great offer on those stubby bottles of German beer? As his thought fades into the wan, persistent, Shakespearean sun, the guard looks up to see Gordon passing in the Whitehall traffic, his head against the window and his one good eye on the road.

  Hanwell Snr

  Zadie Smith

  Hanwell Snr was Hanwell’s father. Like Hanwell, he exis
ted in a small way. Not in his person - he was a ‘big personality’, in that odious phrase - but in his history, which is partial, almost phantasmagoric. Even to Hanwell he seemed a kind of mirage, and nothing pleasant about it. A feckless and slapdash man - worse, in many ways, than a cruel man. Those who have experience of such people will understand. Cruelty can be righteously opposed, eventually dismissed. A freewheeling carelessness with your cares is something else again. It must teach you a sad self-sufficiency, being fathered like that, and a brutal reticence of the heart. A reluctance to get going at all.

  Hanwell Snr came to Hanwell like a comet, at long intervals. He was there when Hanwell was born, surely, and six years after that on a beach in Brighton, holding Hanwell by the armpits and dangling him over a pier. Hanwell Snr spent that evening away from his family, to whom he gave a little money with the generous idea of a round of fish and chips. It didn’t stretch as far as that. A boyo, with charm in spades. That sounds antique, but ‘boyo’ was the word one would have used at the time. First to raise a glass and last to put it down - very much hail fellow, well met - although he was never a drunk, and never incompetent. The type to sing along with those far worse gone than himself, with the idea of gaining advantage over them in their weakness. Back at home, he had a machine he put tuppence in and a fag came out, like in a pub. Also, an eye for his wife’s nearest neighbour, a widow, Sue Boyd - Sue, Sue, I’m very much in love with you, to the tune of a famous ballad of the time, catching her round the waist and waltzing her from the back door to the gate, Mrs Hanwell smiling helplessly on from the window.

 
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