He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Absolute Zero Cool, and reported the following:
Absolute Zero Cool is a blackly comic tale about a writer who finds himself confronted by a character from a long-abandoned novel, which was provisionally titled The Baby Killers. The character is a hospital porter called Billy Karlsson, a borderline sociopath who occasionally engaged in euthanasia in assisting old people who wished to die.Learn more about the book and author at the Crime Always Pays blog.
Unfortunately, Billy simply isn’t murderous enough to cut the mustard in today’s crowded market for serial killers. Stuck in the half-life limbo of an unpublished novel, Billy has a proposal for his creator: that they collaborate on a redraft which ups the ante and makes a fully fledged sociopath of Billy. As his contribution, Billy will give the new version added oomph by blowing up the hospital where he works. ‘Publish,’ says Billy, ‘or I’m damned.’
Thus Absolute Zero Cool incorporates a story-within-a-story, as the narrative veers between the process of redrafting the novel and the constant updating of the original material.
In that context, Page 69 is fairly representative of Absolute Zero Cool, in that it’s almost entirely given over to a redrafted excerpt from The Baby Killers. Here Billy Karlsson, aka K, is in a coffee shop with his long-suffering girlfriend Cassie, who wants Billy to settle down and have a baby. Billy, as is his Walter Mitty-ish wont, drifts away from the conversation to indulge in one of his favourite fantasies, in this case the destruction of the iconic Temple of Diana in 365 BCE by the infamous arsonist, Herostratus:
‘I know you probably won’t be interested in this,’ Cassie says, ‘but …’
We are in Zanzibar, a coffee bar on Old Market Street, seated at a counter beside the plate-glass window looking out at the pigeon-soiled statue of Lady Erin. While Cassie tells me what it is she thinks I won’t be interested in, I ponder on how women start out trying to fuck their fathers and wind up fending off their prepubescent sons.
I wonder if the waitress, who is Polish, might inadvertently yelp something containing guttural vowels at her moment of climax.
I despair at how a woman’s sexual peak arrives just as her visible feminine attributes begin to sag, expand, wrinkle and dissipate.
Lady Erin was erected to commemorate the insurgents who rose against British rule in 1798. Over the years, the descendants of said insurgents have repeatedly vandalised Lady Erin, breaking off her upright arm.
I sympathise with her, as I sympathise with Diana, who still peers down horrified from Olympus as Herostratus burns her temple to the ground in order that posterity might afford him a footnote.
I think about how women who are enlightened enough to realise that men probably won’t be interested in what they have to say have mined a nugget akin to a glass diamond.
‘So what do you think?’ Cassie says.
‘You weren’t listening, were you?’
‘Not to you, no.’
She blinks, then cocks an ear to the stereo. ‘Diana Ross?’
‘Diana. The goddess who had her temple burned down by a man who wanted to be remembered.’
‘What has that to do with anything?’
‘Isn’t that why we’re together? So I can eventually destroy your temple and be remembered?’
‘What’re you talking about, temples?’
‘The body is a temple, Cass. A child’s passage through the vaginal canal is an act of destruction. Hips crack, abdominal plates split. There is sundry ripping and tearing. All so my name can percolate down through the generations.’
I use the word ‘percolate’ because we are in a coffee shop.
Cassie stares at me for a long time, then turns away to gaze out at Lady Erin. She spoons the cream in her cappuccino and says, ‘K, how come you have to make everything more difficult than it really is?’
‘Nothing’s more difficult than it really is, Cass. The myth that something can be easier than it really is was invented by Hoover salesmen.’
‘You know your problem?’ She shakes her head despairingly. ‘You don’t have the imagination to see how things can be better.’
Cassie’s problem is that she thinks I only have one problem.
My line for today comes courtesy of Dame Iris Murdoch: You can live or tell; not both at once.
Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.