Excerpt

The Future Future

Adam Thirlwell

October 18, 2023 
The following is from Adam Thirlwell's The Future Future. Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. He is the author of four novels, and his work has been translated into thirty languages. His essays appear in The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, and he is an advisory editor of The Paris Review. In 2018 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and he has twice been selected by Granta as one of its Best of Young British Novelists.

Celine found Marta beside the ice-cream bar. She showed her a glimpse of the latest pamphlet, which she then concealed very fast in a hidden pocket.

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– Oh: yeah, said Marta.

They went to hide behind an imported tropical plant, for private conversation.

Celine loved Marta because she was small and intense, her fingernails were often black with mud and paint and other dirt, she had a filthy sense of humour, she had features that were elongated and outsize but also magically alluring, and she smoked even more than Celine did.

This new pamphlet, said Marta, described a list of pornographic affairs between Celine and various celebrity women, government ministers and assorted minor characters. There was also a lot of politics, she continued, like bribery and extortion and a conspiracy against the government. And it ended with an agreement between Celine and several Jewish billionaires to negotiate with foreign powers and take control in America, which they then celebrated, added Marta, in a variety of truly barbaric sexual positions.

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Celine thought she might be sick – not so much at any single detail of this picture but because there were so many more images of her in other people’s minds than she could bear.

—Don’t carry on, she

—I mean, that’s kind of everything, said

An empty moon was orbiting at a vast distance from their planet, the same way the conversations continued orbiting.

—I grew up among women, a man interrupted, speaking very close to

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His breath smelled sourly of chocolate.

—I am hyperalert to conversations between women, he added.

—But you’ve never heard that kind of conversation, she said. – By

—But I can try, he said.

Everyone loved pleasure. And perhaps the gruesome man talking to her was sincerely attentive in his feelings towards women, but Celine doubted it. Increasingly, to Celine and her friends, pleasure seemed complicated.

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Celine escaped into a side room, which had a few vases arranged on the floor for women to piss in. She began to piss too. It was a difficult operation and some splashed on the rim, staining the edge of her dress.

Someone she loved once said to her: It looks like a party, it feels like a party, it smells like a party. But don’t get it twisted. This isn’t a party. This is power, baby.

Celine started to cry, then stopped herself. Then she went back into the room.

*

The following night, Celine was in her apartment with Marta and Julia. The general climate outside was an intense heat. Celine was in an old vest and leggings. Julia, who tended to wear the costume of the ultra-feminine, was on a sofa, while Marta gave her a new hairstyle with many ties and pins. They were practising their usual hobby – which was trying to understand the world. They sometimes did this with Tarot cards, sometimes with conversation. And Celine was half observing Julia and wondering at her look, the elongated length of her body and her hair and her pale attractive skin, how she disguised herself for men in these floaty dresses when really she should have been standing there with a riding crop or chain.

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Then Sasha interrupted, and it was as if all the pleasure disappeared immediately – the way a room disintegrates at the end of a disco party when someone turns the strip lights on and all the plants are crushed.

—The fuck is this? said Sasha.

He had a pamphlet in his hand, and they were all so badly printed and so smudged that it was impossible to see if this was a new one or an old one.

—Is that the most recent one? said Marta.

—Can I speak with my wife? said – This is family.

—What’s that? said Celine, ignoring him.

—It’s new, he said.

—How new? said Celine.

Then Sasha grabbed her by the throat and smudged the pamphlet up beside her face, as if this might help her to read it. It was very rare for so much violence to be so present in a room, it made everything claustrophobic, like they were all crushed up against a wall. He began to recite, or paraphrase – it was impossible to tell. She tried to speak but he was holding her too tightly round the throat and she felt frightened partly because of what Sasha was doing but also because of the violence of the words being quoted at her. She had become used to never hearing the words in which she was described and the effect now was very ugly.

When Sasha finished there was a bright red ragged line around her throat. She tried to pick up an old cigarette from the plate where it was slowly unravelling to ash but her hands were shaking too much. So Marta took this stub and relit it and placed it in Celine’s mouth. There was so much tenderness in this little gesture that it made Celine briefly courageous.

—Wait, do you mean that you believe this? said Celine.

In reply, Sasha punched her in the face above her cheek. The shock of it was almost as major as the pain inside her eye and her soft skull. She felt unbalanced and understood very vaguely that her legs were failing to support her until she suddenly found herself collapsed on the floor. Very slowly she got back up, holding on to the leg of a sofa, then the silk of its cushion. There was an old Tarot card, lost underneath a chair. Her ear was very sore, she touched it, and there was a light smear of blood on her fingertip.

Sasha was breathing very fast. He said that it was humiliating, or he was humiliated, or she was humiliating: she couldn’t hear perfectly and didn’t want to ask him to repeat the sentence. For some moments he stood there, breathing. Then he left the room.

Slowly Celine walked over to a mirror. She was also bleeding from the corner of one eye, and from the retrospect of a long-distant future it would seem to Celine that this moment when her reflection stared blankly back at her was the moment when she discovered the basic law of her cartoon world – that anyone suspended above a void will remain suspended until made aware of her situation, at which point she will fall.

There was a purple mark on her cheek. It was shapeless the way a spider or spit is shapeless.

—Hey, look, said Julia. – Your psychotic husband dropped something.

Then she picked up a piece of paper and handed it to Celine.

*

Celine had always asked herself why she didn’t do more. It seemed that everyone assumed there was nothing to be done. But around her many men thought that they could make plans, many men everywhere were plotting and conspiring and making moves, and Celine felt that she should be able to make moves too. She just needed to make calculations.

In the morning Celine received multiple messages from Marta – telling her that she was not unhungover, that she wanted to kill someone, and that she was coming over immediately to discuss their major operation.

Marta had grown up in the outer provinces on an estate in a kind of swamp land. Her father was very rich but dead, her mother was therefore very rich but drunk or depressed or both, and as a child Marta shot rabbits and deer and listened to thunderstorms. Then she was adopted by her aunt, who lived in a larger house in the countryside and taught her the rules of behaviour. When they met, Celine had immediately loved her. She wasn’t someone, thought Celine, who would ever swoon. Marta was exacting and pitiless and for these qualities alone Celine would have adored her, even without her garish and brutal beauty. Also Marta was extreme in her care for her friends. In a society made of words and images circulating and recirculating, all devoted to disinformation, it was very difficult to find any personal safety, and one minuscule form might just be this intense form of friendship between two women.

—I am going to die, Celine said. – Why doesn’t he love me? What am I meant to do?

—You won’t die, said Marta.

—What does your husband say? said Celine. – Has he said anything? Did he speak with Sasha?

—You want to talk about my husband ? said Marta.

—I like the dress, said Celine.

Marta was wearing a very bright outfit, with outsize rainbow sleeves. She looked very young, thought Celine, even though she was older than her. This was possibly their problem – that they were all so very young, or seemed so. To be that young made people think you could be attacked forever. There was so much hatred! It was all there, waiting for them, expressed in strings of words, and maybe this hatred was the reason why they could not see the sunlit cosmos they were expecting, but only corridors and dead ends.

Marta smiled, took off some layers, and ensconced herself in bed beside her friend. There was a stale gateau by the bed which she ate.

—What do I do about these people? said Celine. – I need to do more.

—You can’t worry about what misinterpreters think, said Marta.

—But don’t you care, said Celine, – when people talk about you? I can’t bear It feels like death, it feels like a transformation. And then for it to be my husband who is angry –

All language was disgusting, said Marta. But people seemed to adore it. It was like how everyone loved reading these novels in letters. As if everything existed in order to end up in words! Whereas most feelings, or at least the most interesting, she said, avoided language entirely. Then Marta leaned over to pour from a bottle into a dirty cup.

Meanwhile the planet continued to be whirled around a zooming sun.

—I want revenge, said Celine.

—You need a handle on them, said Marta. – If you want to scare these men you need something that they want.

—But I don’t have anything, said Celine. – My husband hates me. And if I have no husband then I have nothing.

—I’m not like trivialising your pain, said Marta, – but no: I refuse that.

They had the window open. The sound of the courtyards below came up to them: distant parakeets, muffled horses. She had to admit that it was always delicious to lie around in the daylight when the world was working, however depressed you might feel.

—Like: what was in that message? said Marta. – The one he dropped.

—Oh the message, said Celine. – Yeah, the message was from his boss, the chief minister, talking shit about Marie Can you imagine? Also it’s written in code. But you know what shows how dopey they are? It had the cipher with it.

—Well, said Marta, – so then we have something?

—Why? said Celine. – What can I do with a letter?

—It’s talking shit about Antoinette, said Marta. – No one talks shit about the first lady. Give it to Ulises.

—Ulises? The little diplomat?

—Sure, the little Portuguese, said Marta. – The one with that funny jutting penis. Sorry, no, the Spanish one.

For a short moment, neither of them spoke.

—Yeah, said Celine. – But we still need more than that. I need to take control.

It was so unnerving to lose a world, thought Celine, or even realise that a world could be lost. All the bricks and children and treetops, everything she could see from her window, now seemed remote and distant. In that kind of situation all she had for her survival was whatever was closest to hand. And the persistent pleasure of her life was this back and forth of conversation between friends, perhaps because a conversation was the last remaining place for words to be tender things. She liked the way a conversation could produce unforeseen creatures – concepts she was not sure she believed, or was unaware that she believed – and then suddenly it occurred to her that this beauty of conversation could be improvised for a different purpose.

—What are we best at? said Celine.

Marta raised an amused eyebrow.

—Talking, Celine corrected her.

She couldn’t leave her husband, because without any money of her own she would be dependent on the hospitality of others. It was true that at any point it was possible to seduce another man and so acquire some influence over him but that seemed a limited and precarious power – to be once again dependent on the whim of a man. Everything therefore, as it always has been for those with no money of their own, and no obvious means of making any, was very confined and limited. But the power that had destroyed her, she was suddenly thinking, might also be the power that could help her too. She had this vision of a group of writers and artists around her who would repay her for entertainment and snacks with their own arguments and fictions – a field of influence, cloudlike and enveloping.

—We need writers, said Celine.

—We don’t seem to have the writers, said Marta.

—I mean we need other writers, said Celine. – We throw parties.

But, worried Celine, it wasn’t obvious how she could just throw a party that writers would think was cool. It was always very intricate, the question of cool, and it seemed to interest writers most of all.

—Writers ? said – Are you serious right now? Have you never met a writer? We give them alcohol and chicas. We give them glamour.

Celine looked at Marta. In the sunlight from the window her old acne scars were more visible. She was very attractive. It was suddenly possible, thought Celine, to feel hopeful.

In the history of the world, said Marta, the most corruptible, the most lethal and most innocent, had always been the writers.

*

There was literature everywhere. The world was a jungle called writing. In this world writers became politicians and politicians wrote for newspapers and meanwhile everyone wrote to each other every day, as if an experience were not an experience until it had acquired its own image in words. Words were being printed on newspaper sheets, scribbled on notebook scraps and letters, hoarded in archives, pasted up on walls or bound together in little booklets for distribution in the arcades. The paper they had to use was rough, was heavy and stained and it ripped very easily, but the words themselves, it seemed, were becoming lighter and lighter, quick sketched symbols for catching the universe in a delicate, ineffable net. And the more ineffable a net is the more impossible it is to escape it.

The way this looked in the ordinary world was that everyone was putting on shows, or starting magazines, or developing crazes for particular kinds of writing. Then they went to bars to talk about these shows and magazines, arguing over masthead layouts and font design and the backwardness of current writing. It was the new era of publication, everyone was gradually realising, with amazement, as they walked around in the alleys and woodlands and concert halls – the way you might enter a fashion show and discover slowly and with amazement that the entire decor, even the chair you sit on, is made from flowers. And perhaps from now on there will be no other era – until the solar flares and asteroids at last demolish everything. Stories multiplied very fast, the way germs or spores will emanate from any decaying thing, while outside roamed the calamitous dogs. People wanted to compose their own crônicas, or comment on the writings of other people, only interrupting this writing for more reading, which led to even more writing. It was as if writing was a narcotic or at least an obsession, and no one really thought about the effects of producing so many words – not on those whom the words described, or on those who produced the words, or on a world in which so many words existed.

A world in which writing is everywhere is really a world of reading. Everyone was writing – but this meant that everyone was reading, and then experiencing a deep illness of reading. And among these words and articles were the libels about Celine and her friends, as well as many other women who found themselves described maliciously as famous. Defaming and libelling and stalking and attacking had never been so easy: it was the golden age of psychosis. This writing was all anonymous and the anonymity seemed to confer impunity, like how everyone savaged the house party Celine had been thrown for her seventeenth birthday. It made these writers feel invincible and invisible, and perhaps the two states were the same.

Celine understood all this while still thinking it was disgusting. She had a fear that meaning was shifting, maybe not just shifting but disappearing, and it was happening because there were now no true sources of information. So much information was being put out there in real time, local and non-local information, and all of it was warped. Every sentence extended objects or people beyond their natural habitat, creating images and rumours – the way a shadow might be peeled away from a person and converted into a silhouette.

And yet no one else, by which of course she meant no men, appeared to share her anger, or to appreciate the violence betrayed by this mania for writing. I mean sure, they said, if she tried to mention it, but did you see what they wrote about Antoinette? It was as if she had been chosen to understand things before other people understood them, precisely by being transformed into deadbeat pornography. To be exposed in this way was to exist in a total abject state – with nothing to protect her from being made up by people less imaginative or intelligent than she was. But this gave her a knowledge that no one else possessed. People seemed to believe that they had the power to  determine  their own image. They didn’t realise, thought Celine, that they were determined by other people and the words of other people.

All the forests and squid and greyhounds had been engulfed by the literary world, the way a serpent will envelop an elephant. This world, of course, exists wherever representations of people are made, and its essence is compromise, terror, vanity, fashion and death – because in the business of representations all value is subjective, and therefore impermanent, and therefore only ever installed by force. But still, the proportions between this world and the other gigantic world are very mobile and delinquent. At any moment, it turned out, the old world could disappear entirely and become little digital strings of symbols, vanishing into the white air.

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Future Future by Adam Thirlwell. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Adam Thirlwell. All rights reserved.




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