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Max Lawton

Art by Jessica Dunne

 
 

The thing poor people don’t get about NYC is that it’s all about being way up above all others. Looking down on the roofs below you. The lamp-freckled, dark-green stain of Central Park at its center.

The thing rich people don’t get about NYC is that it’s all about being lost in a labyrinth of impoverished streets. Never knowing who’s waiting around the next corner.

I left the city the day a green sticker appeared a few doors down from me, sealing a studio on my floor where someone had died. The sticker meant that no one could go in and that the investigation was ongoing. It was spring, but still cold.

I was used to going north on the East Side Highway––technically called FDR Drive––after nights of heavy drinking and occasional drugs, still sniffing up the remnants of white powder tickling my nostrils. On this trip to the airport, however, I was entirely sober, and did not experience the Uber ride as any kind of expression of freedom as I spun out along the eternal streets between ridges of artificial stone.

The first project I’d pitched to the producer who was now sending me to London had been an adaptation of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. But I had no intention of turning it into an early- aughts Miramax-style melodrama. No, I wanted to somehow capture the endless oscillation of James’s prose with the language of cinema itself.

Despite my pithy, propulsive summary of The Golden Bowl over dinner at a Midtown sushi bar, the producer had been horrified when he’d tried reading James himself, unable to get through a single sentence. Then he’d remembered my pitch––that I wouldn’t just be turning James into some “Shakespeare in Love–style bullshit”––and had immediately called me in a rage:

“I mean… listen to this… what the fuck are you fucking thinking… a twenty-million-dollar project modeled around… um… capturing the rhythm… of this… bullshit? I mean… hold on a sec… hold on… I’m opening the book… I want to, like, convey to you the sheer… the sheer, uh, bullshittiness of your idea… of… um… here we go: ‘The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber.’ Do you have any, like, clue of what the fuck that means? I suppose you might think to, uh, decipher it and turn it into something people could, like, watch and enjoy… but no! Not you! Mr. Ivy League Degree over here thinks that what I should be, like, sinking my fucking money into is capturing the rhythms of this dogshit language… I mean, here… listen to some more and think about the, uh, sheer ridiculousness of your idea. Here, hold on,” a beat, “here: ‘Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognised in the present London much more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself…’ and I’m not even gonna finish this sentence, man… I’m really not… I’m not in the business of academizing film projects, so to speak, I’m really not… can you even convey to me how you might wish to, uh, convey this language in a fuckin’ goddamn twenty-million-dollar movie?”

I was mute on the other end of the line, the black rectangle of my iPhone sealed to my ear.

“No… you can’t… well, take this piece of advice from me, man, I’m not trying to make, uh, like, fuckin’ academic-press films, so next time you come to me with an idea and a pitch, uh, you better be sure it’s an idea that’s, y’know, FUCKABLE…”

But I was never able to think in straight lines and—as such—the next idea that I pitched him was really no more fuckable. I had a sinking feeling as I hit send on the email containing the pitch doc, but I still sent it.

 

This idea was to make a movie meticulously reconstructing every detail of a ’70s-era BBC sitcom. The whole film was going to be shot exactly like Fawlty Towers, but would be about a sitcom-star’s descent into East London substance-abuse debauchery. We would recreate every aspect of that world––every car, every scrap of carpeting, the slightly stale smell of cigarettes lingering under light fixtures in Shepperton, the layout of a Full English on a plate the color of stained linens, the precise trim of the pubic hair of the East London babes that he’d bang, the Brick Lane-curry-house light fixtures, the exact makeup (like––who came from where) of the tourists in Central London, the production assistants carrying silver trays of buttered toast and tea through the studio, the way British butter would stick to the tips of your fingers in the ’70s––the fact that, for quite a while, tea and toast were as omnipresent as cigarettes in the rooms where culture was fabricated––the words British women said when they came. In addition to the precise packaging (baggies vs. vials) of drugs and the specific shapes that people rolled joints into, I was concerned with the exact color the Thames would be as it closed over the sitcom-star’s head in the wake of his final desperate act––suicide by plunging into the Thames right by the Isle of Dogs, which we’d also have to recreate meticulously. I imagined fires in metal barrels around which Victorian-style urchins would gather, warming themselves in ill-smelling fumes and smoking Chinese opium. I’d have to research the exact chemical composition of the pollution in the Thames. Perhaps I’d experiment with how light would fall onto murk in a special sort of laboratory. We’d pan from the Thames through the entire city, then back to the film studio in Shepperton. Everything would be exactly how it had been.

Of course, these hadn’t been the exact words I’d sent to the producer. Instead, I’d referenced Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a film that’d also reproduced a certain cinematic era, and then I outlined a tale of sitcom-star’s descent into substance abuse and madness, indicating that he would, in large measure, be based on John Cleese.

My inability to think of artistic projects that weren’t, in a certain sense, collages or honeycombed through with referentiality was a kind of wound that I constantly licked at. If the film didn’t work out, I was going to try to write a novel––an L.A. odyssey that would split the difference between Ellroy and Aksyonov. Plotless meandering and machine-gun prose, I guess.

But the producer had “bitten” and his “friends” had bitten too. I was working on the script and they sent me to London to meet with a few other possible financiers and studios. I was already planning to take the long walk from Canary Whaft to Shepperton, imagining how we could recreate the dead city for the final tracking shot. I had cleared a great deal of memory space on my iPhone in preparation for this.

I had no fear of small details.

 
 

The Heathrow landing was unsteady and I felt my anus clench when the wing almost biffed the ground.

I got an hour of sleep at the Mayfair hotel that felt oddly like an Oxbridge student dormitory (something to do with the smell of the carpet-soap and the laundry detergent, plus the viciously powerful quality of the light), and then I went right to a meeting with the production company at St. John. They sent two producers to chat with me. I ordered smoked eel, crispy pig’s cheek, and Eccles cake. We drank black velvet: Guinness and champagne poured into a single silver chalice. They paid for dinner.

Walking down the stairs toward the restaurant bathroom, I passed a bar and bakery in what felt like an atrium, but which was actually sort of a second dining room. The smell of the London damp was overwhelming. I imagined my hero constantly surrounded by a fugue of such stench: East London as one giant spot of damp upon the Map of Albion. But what about these Aesop soap and hand lotions perched by the sink? They had no place here in the ’70s. I picked them up and walked over to the bin, chucking them before pissing in the urinal and washing my hands soaplessly.

Mere minutes after I returned, one producer went to the bathroom. Upon his return, he told our waiter that there was no soap downstairs, to which our waiter reacted with an enormous sense of moral import.

I hoped the producer hadn’t taken a shit. I hoped his hands weren’t percolating microbes. Were we going to shake hands one last time?

The producers announced that they would almost certainly be able to give us millions of pounds. As we spoke, I gradually became convinced that they were able to offer me the money with such ease because, in this place, it was the ’70s.

 
 

After the meeting––alas!––we shook hands hard and they went away in an Uber––a silver sports car that must’ve been a luxury option. I didn’t see one on my phone when I called a car here. I couldn’t find the “Uber Black” add-on like in NYC.

The jetlag was mild, a time difference of only five hours. A friend from college who was now working as an anesthesiologist complained to me later in the evening that other British doctors really did treat the people responsible for administering anesthesia as second-class citizens, didn’t even call them “anesthesiologists.” These days she sometimes gave ketamine infusions. She injected a longtime prisoner with ket and, after he was done, he said, “thanks so much for the trip, luv, that’s the best I’ve felt in flippin’ ages.” She wanted to get drinks at a pub in northern Hackney, which was where she lived, even though she worked in a village between Cambridge and London, an in-between place where foxes roamed the streets all night long, pissing and whining.

The pub in Hackney also reeked of damp, but at least there were three fireplaces roaring like in a capacious medieval hall in a BBC series.

I don’t know if it was because of the damp, but I felt myself drawn out of the pub’s wood-paneled interior into a thin sieve, even as Eleanor chatted and I nodded affably, unsure about the precise romantic contours of interaction, but she kept talking about her boyfriend and the thin sieve floated just above the street––more of a glass tube than a sieve actually, an enormous chemistry set responsible for running out the experiment of my time in Albion. My skin was sucked against its interior surfaces. It blanched upon contact as a function of the vacuum’s terrifying power. The tube was taking me back to 1975—it was taking me back to when I had the ability to make love with anyone from the past that I wanted––it would be like a video game, it wouldn’t be real, you could take any drugs you wanted, could eat as many full English breakfasts as you’d like without any fear of clogging your arteries, could risk accostment by tramps and beggars in the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields, could risk falling in love or impregnating your lover… all of it was free and none of it was fear…

But in 2022, interactions that contained an uncertain erotic resonance cost me quite a bit. My guts were puckered by the anxiety of the encounter. Eleanor kept talking about how much she wanted me to meet her boyfriend and I remembered that I’d met him once before in a context I couldn’t remember––at a student art show, perhaps––and that he’d been wearing a Black Flag T-shirt. I liked that band and I had told him that I did.

“So, what’re you doing in London? You said, like, business?” she asked me.

“We’re making a movie about the past.”

One of logs in the fire crackled violently and a man and woman of roughly same age as us sat down at the next table over. The dude had on a Primark windbreaker and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt.

It was April and the fields didn’t smell of mint yet. I felt chilly and cheated wearing my AllSaints leather jacket.

An Essex Girl with the Led Zeppelin guy was drinking a Bloody Mary, which seemed just totally insane for a late night at a Hackney bar.

Eleanor smirked: “Whose past? Our past?”

I shook my head and looked down into my G+T, sheepish and tired. At that moment, I couldn’t’ve been happier that the zoning laws instated during the Blitz shut down all the pubs by 10:30pm (at the latest).

“It’s about the texture of the past… like… when you were a kid, did you watch BBC shows?”

“What… you mean like Fawlty Towers?”

“Exactly,” I nodded.

“And… like…so what?”

“Did you ever notice what the light bulbs look like in them? Or… hmmm… the particular green shade of the carpeting? The fire-safety stickers on the doors? Are they different from the fire-safety stickers on the doors now?”

“I’m not sure.” Her hours at work were terrible and she looked a little tired as she tried to get her head round what I was saying. I was distracted by her shapely features, by her cute fringe, by the weary warmth in her copper-green eyes (as in: copper-green, that’s the color of time).

I wasn’t pitching it to her as well as I had to the producers.

“It’s about all of that.” Strangely enough, the taste of coins and scotch had somehow taken over my G+T almost entirely.

I drank it with no pleasure.

 

“We're making a movie about the past.”

 

As a nightcap, I insisted that we go look for chips, cheese, and gravy—an occasionally delicious British dish. We wandered through the weird streets of Hackney. The balconied council estates stuck up into the sky like flightless spaceships left over from a previous civilization. On one plot of grass outside of a particularly sprawling estate, there was an open-air gym with weight-lifting machines. I couldn’t help but wonder if this had been erected during covid to “stop the spread.” Upon closer examination, the metal of the machines was terribly rusted. The gym had to have predated the plague.

The gravy they poured over the chips was made with little pellets of brown matter and scalding water. The ensemble tasted like cigarettes.

I walked Eleanor home to her flat nearby. I asked her how she liked living in Hackney.

“Can’t complain––plenty of green space.”

The hug lingered for longer than it had to. But her boyfriend was just inside, up the steps and inside of this presumably damp flat that was actually two stories tall (as she was chuffed to tell me). It was always shocking to bear witness to the quality of rental opportunities in other big cities when you were coming from NYC.

“Maybe I’ll be free to hang in the next few days…” she said as I walked away. This was her way of leaving the door open to another potential romantic encounter. Closing such doors was always too painful. Better not to, even when there was absolutely no expectation of ever walking through them.

 
 

Encased in the clean-smelling laundry soap of the sheets—and having taken a grape-flavored melatonin gummy from the baggie I’d bought at JFK after googling “melatonin in the UK” and discovering it was illegal to buy it there without a prescription—I wondered if the smell of this soap had changed since the ’70s. It reminded me of what I imagined Victorian prostitutes washed themselves with between clients.

I dreamt I was having dinner at Iain Sinclair’s house. I actually wanted him as a consultant for the film. During the meal, I insisted everyone listen to the newest Red Hot Chili Peppers album. I played it on my iPhone. Now that John Frusciante was back in the band, it seemed important that we do this. As we ate steak-and-kidney-pudding encased in suet, the music coming from my iPhone speaker kept getting louder and louder. Iain and his wife loved it. They were the ones turning it up. Then Iain began to insist that it’d come out when he was younger, that this was an album from the ’70s. I pulled up the album metadata on my iPhone, but it wouldn’t load. Finally, Iain gestured into the corner and showed me that the album was a record—and there it was, spinning away on the turntable. He then expressed his excitement that J. G. Ballard, who was a far greater fan of the album than either him or his wife, would soon be joining us. He was to arrive bearing bottles of gin he’d made from Shepperton river-water mixed with rivulets of motor oil suctioned up from the top levels of parking garages.

At that moment, someone knocked on the door.

At which point I woke up.

 

Over the course of two more meetings that day, I managed to secure millions more pounds. My face felt drained of blood. Something about the quality of light through the clouds in London sucked color from the skin.

After the first meeting and before the second, I sat reading The Burn in the fancy, non-sci-fi section of Sketch, I’d found a finely upholstered armchair instead of lodging in one of the weird plastic pods. I wondered why there had to be a naked woman weeping on the book’s cover. It made it look like I was reading something by, say, Peter Sotos. But—as the dust jacket was laminated onto a library book—I had no option of removing it and slipping it into my backpack. I’d just have to deal with occasionally befuddled glances.

It was at that point that I remembered the RHCP lyrics that Iain had loved so much in my dream: “I want a $1,000 pair of corduroy jeans / I believe in a new life / I believe I have money / I want to fuck a famous actress.” Iain had even suggested that he would use these lyrics as the epigraph to his new novel.

I hoped he would.

I took a selfie in the sci-fi bathroom and sent it to Eleanor for no particular reason.

 
 

I drank three martinis at Balthazar and had beef for both courses at my next meeting—tartare and then steak frites. Having seen Woody Allen twice at the Balthazar in Soho, I was disappointed not to see him here. I was increasingly aware of the fact that all the producers wanted to hear was that this project would bear some resemblance to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. My pitch was therefore laconic but brilliant.

At end of dinner, they insisted we seal the deal with crème brûlée and profiteroles. They were terrible and I had a cognac.

They picked up the check.

During my brief tenure in the capital, I’d secured at least ten million pounds. Possibly more.

We shook hands hard and they melted away into the Central London night.

I looked outside my black-cab window––into 1975.

 
 

My friend Mercedes was coming to meet me right outside the restaurant so I stood and listened to someone covering Ed Sheeran on the corner. An enormous family from Dubai talked loudly over him.

Mercedes gave me a long hug. Her leather jacket looked like it came from AllSaints as well, but she informed me that it came from elsewhere––a designer whose name I didn’t catch. First, we stopped by a party in a strangely nautical apartment building near Elephant and Castle. Everyone there had done so much ket that they kept introducing themselves to me, not realizing it was the second, third, fourth, fifth time… Mercedes and I took a funny selfie holding baggies of cocaine between our teeth. The only person who didn’t introduce himself to me at least six times was a tall British guy with a newsboy cap who told us how he’d bought his hat in Brussels. He’d gone there for a date after matching with a Belgian girl who was in London briefly. His whole queasy, Britishy account of the whole debacle––including how much he hated Belgians—really put us off and we decided to leave. We had to get north of the river as soon as possible.

It was a Friday evening approaching midnight, so she suggested we just go to Shoreditch House where we were both members.

A short Uber ride later, we were camped out at a table by the pool in the open air on the top floor and hitting her dab pen. It was too cold to be sitting out here, but it was cool to look out at the shopping malls of the city. I hadn’t yet taken my enormous iPhone tracking shot from here to Shepperton.

We got triple scotches and drained them quickly to get to the second round. The combination of the dab pen and the liquor meant that I wasn’t entirely conscious of my environs or the ensuring sequence of events. Not even a key bump (and I took two) could bring me back to my senses.

I have only a vague recollection of how I ended up in the Shoreditch apartment where she lived alone, filled with houseplants and old orange-spined Penguin editions.

It was 1975 in here. I knew that it was.

I sat in an armchair by the bed reading Blake’s Jerusalem aloud. Being but a brief visitor upon these shores, I always insisted upon doing the most cliché things possible. I didn’t even like Blake and especially not Jerusalem. She lay in bed, eyes fluttering like she was trying to fall asleep.

She told me about how there’d been an abandoned Lloyd’s by her house when she was a kid. Going out late at night, she saw families of foxes scurrying into the decaying insurance office whenever she stepped out the door of her terraced Edwardian home.

We were all praying for a future like that: families of forest creatures in the shopping malls of London as far as the eye could see.

Right when I heard the story, I knew I had to go, but, first, I took one more bump for the road.

 
 

I was determined to do the tracking shot right then. I made my way through the empty streets toward the river. Amidst offices and unoccupied apartments owned by overseas investors, I felt like a man alone with God, but also felt envious of Mercedes alone in her bed.

A drunk woman—her face puffy with cider and the brutality of sleeping on cobblestones under the harsh lights of recently zoned commercial real estate—asked me for money. She needed a bus ticket, she said. I legitimately had no cash.

I heard someone behind me say, “I mean… you’ve really gotta check out Dubai Chinatown.” When I looked back to see who could’ve uttered such a ridiculous phrase, all I caught was a glimpse of an iPhone extended out from around the glass corner of a realtor’s office. Who was filming me?

As I approached the river, the aspect ratio of the screen shifted, going from wide to square. Everything became slightly grainier.

My head was spinning, shaking loose from its axis. I felt queasy. How long did I even have left here in London? The coke was going to keep me from sleeping no matter what. I had to get this shot. What was the point of lying in bed sleeplessly with my head hot and my tongue raw?

However, by the time I reached the walkway along the Thames, my iPhone would no longer turn on.

Furious at first, I took a deep breath to calm myself and then stared at the waters of the river under the light of the full moon. Both the Thames and the moon were a different color now. A more industrial odor wafted up from the water. A shiver in the fabric of things.

Someone tapped on my shoulder. I turned around. After a moment’s surprise, I realized that it was Connie Booth from Fawlty Towers standing before me. There was no mistaking it. I’d watched every episode at least four times in preparation for writing the script. I had memorized every detail. This was precisely her hair, put up messily and dirty-blonde. Plus she was wearing her iconic blue dress with the bosom-fronting white lace that was simultaneously alluring and a symbol of the fact that she was a maid. She smiled with shy wistfulness. As if to say: “you poor thing… I can’t imagine having to inhabit this London––London forty-seven years later.”

A younger actress was playing her––I couldn’t remember her name—but she’d recently (yeah: forty-seven years in the future) played a Slavic witch who was a Viking’s lover in a very violent film. This period drama about the BBC would be a nice change of pace for her after grueling shoots in Ice- and Ireland.

I faced north and she faced the river. The lights dimmed and then the shopping mall of the city was gone. It was a much darker place when the air was edged with coal. But I breathed deeper than I ever had before.

“You don’t have to film anything,” she whispered. “It’s here for good. You’re here for good.”

She looked almost Argentinian, but she had entirely mastered the sound of Connie Booth’s voice.

It was at that moment that I wondered if I were meant to be Basil Fawlty––to be some version of John Cleese contending with a serious substance-abuse issue.

Before I could ask, Connie took my hand and led me into a black cab idling a block from the stone walkway along the river.

My iPhone was gone.

“What about the movie?” I asked.

“This is the movie, darling.”

The driver was discreet and smiling, only glancing back at us briefly and not even asking where we were headed. As we drove out of London, I saw that every other building was a breakfast café. There wasn’t a single Foxton’s in sight. And there were no tourists on the street this late at night.

Simultaneously, back home in NYC, the condo people of Greenpoint watched me whizz toward the UES. The city constructed from stone and glass now turned to light and dark, a landscape of only photons and their absence. The liquid on my right side rippled and caught the reflections of the windows up above. The more deprived that I felt of my body at such moments, the more I felt myself dissolve into that outer landscape made of pure metaphysics. But this was a kind of Uber-mediated metaphysics that I could, paradoxically, also experience directly in the way the car’s wheels spun across the unnatural black stone. The experience of darkness in a car at night—a car anointed with urinal-cake air freshener—turned these lights against the darkness into a metaphor for the soul’s emergence from limbo into birth.

I whispered into Connie’s ear. She moaned softly.

We shared a little room on the ground floor of the hotel. We had to pretend to occupy each of our two rooms individually to maintain the ambiguity of our affair. Much slapstick ensued as a result of our malentendu.

Each moment with her was sheer ecstasy. It was free and it was fun. The precise billow of her pubic hair and her exclamations as she orgasmed had been meticulously researched: exactly as it was (would be) in 1975. The radio played a song I recognized from a dream as semen dried upon her belly in one of our little rooms: “I want a $1000 pair of corduroy jeans / I believe in a new life / I believe I have money / I want to fuck a famous actress.”

The rules of British broadcasting in 1975 were quite a bit less stringent than I thought they would be with regard to profanity on the radio.

I would spend the rest of my life luxuriating in the precise texture of everything—a scrap of textile or a door handle, and the whole world was filled to bursting with objects precisely such as these. I would grow old with Connie and she would be glad to have left her life as an actress behind. The producers would initially wonder where I’d gone, but they’d forget me soon enough.

I’d spend the rest of my life in a dream of my own devising.

And never wake up.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Max Lawton

Max Lawton is a novelist, musician, and translator. He has translated many works by Vladimir Sorokin and is currently working on translations of works by Michael Lentz, Antonio Moresco, Stefano D’Arrigo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He is the author of two novels, The Abode and Progress, as well as a collection of short stories, The World. He lives in Los Angeles, where, when he isn’t writing, he plays heavy metal.



Jessica Dunne

Jessica Dunne makes large urban landscape paintings and tiny spit-bite aquatints. She has received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, the James D. Phelan Art Award in Printmaking, and many artist-in-residency awards. She has had solo shows in museums and universities around the country, including the Frye Art Museum, the Flaten Art Museum, and the Fresno Art Museum, and her work is in the collections of the Oakland Museum of California, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Stanford Special Collections. She just returned from a fellowship at the Oberpfaelzer Kuenstlerhaus in Germany and is preparing for a solo show at Santa Clara University.



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