What happens when the Manhattan zoo empties its cages?
Bunyan’s Guide to the Great American Wildlife by Quentin Canterel
John, part radicalised anarchist, part ticking time bomb,
is haunted by a particular story, that of Willow, a 9-year old mute who flees to New York after her brutal rape. The only way his girlfriend, Felicity, can stop the clock counting down is by disentangling the riddle of their pasts, before their entwined futures are blown to pieces.
Quentin Canterel’s second novel presents a collage of voices, dead and alive, in a unique and unnerving novel that experiments with form, structure and language.
Truly a mystery shrouded in an enigma.
To read on, buy the paperback or eBook version here.
” DRTY LIAR”
Even now, the words raise the faintest echoes of your voice. And I, poor scribe, continue to copy down your every dispatch, in disbelief that it is really you talking through the board. However incredible it might seem, I do perceive your presence here as you stalk among the guttering candles, guiding the shuttle through this dance of words, which can only be described as a sort of SMS of the afterlife.
So I did, as did you.
But I am powerless to do so. Did you ever believe I could?
“THEY WONT BELIVE U”
Perhaps, but push comes to shove, you, dog-eyed one, shall lead me through this dark forest.
“U LACK 4GIVNESS”
As do you, dear, dearest…
These scratches I put to paper are meant to be an invocation of the dead and indeed, I write by candlelight, hoping some of your ectoplasm will burnish these blank pages. Your little ark of flesh contained an unfulfilled promise, but never found its proper berth after being sucked into its self-obsessed whirlpool. John Bunyan, dead at 23. No doubt, you are flapping bat’s wings in some ill-heated Purgatorio, surrounded by the decadent hiss of the unborn.
“I CULD USE SUM FIRE”
And even those sexless seraphs who hovercraft the clouds shall mourn your passing from here till the end of time. As I write, I can almost see your slender visitation as it threads the cypress choked clefts of an Uccello-like otherwhere. After all that has taken place, it is left to me to bring the hidden contents of your untethered vessel to shore. The great work you had intended, but had asked me to destroy all trace of.
Bunyan’s Guide to the Great American Wildlife
I have pieced this ragged thing together from letters, correspondences, court testimonials and most of all your own work, the Great Guide. Certain things I have had to change (large parts of Felicity’s back story have been cleverly altered), making replacements, cuts and amendments to put it in a form that at least those around you could begin to understand. And finally, mutatis mundatis, I place it here, before you. Though we have had our differences and once competed, stupidly, for what we thought was some kind of literary supremacy, death, alas, has given you an easy victory and it is I, Zulfikar, writing this instead of you.
Presently, as I scribble these lines, I am reminded that Felicity, kind maiden, had supplied me the perfect piece of poetry to describe everything that could reasonably be summarized as your life. It is from no less than an English monk of an almost mythic vintage. Before I begin in earnest, I entomb here this little sprig of bitterness:
“The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before, we know nothing at all.”
Oh, how true, how true…
But, enough, let those tarts, the muses, have their way and allow us to trace the musical beginnings of our relationship that would one day culminate into that sad fugue of personalities, lifelines, and ultimately, bombs.
“ULTIMA CUMAY VENIT EYAAM CARMINIS 8AS”
You will (no doubt) remember how we first met: I responded to an ad in The Village Voice or perhaps it was that more sordid affair, the hardly mentionable Craig’s List:
Single, white male, seeking quiet, clean roommate. Small 1 bdrm apartment in the Diamond District. Professionals only need apply.
The ad was as terse as your little cartoon cave above the anonymous deli. Here, my New York salad days were largely misspent. In our brief time together, I was tossed between wrack and ruin, only to be disgorged months later like a soured piece of borsch in a rather unpleasant back alley of Alphabet City. But first, our Midtown idyll. It was there that we floated like Rajas, on air mattresses a hand’s width above a rat-chewed carpet. It was there that we cartwheeled entire nights away in booze and barbiturates. It was there, alas, that amidst all this wasted wattage, we forgot that despite our pissing away our daily bread, time’s inexorable clockwork still pounded on in the form of an old Jewish landlord (claiming Josephus’ descent) who would invariably send up his golem-like thug to collect our rent when we’d trespassed his patience by mere days.
“MET HIM YSTRDAY. HE PAID IT BCK IN END”
You lived invisibly inside the little loft space, hardly larger than a coffin. Your first words to me…
“As they say, this ain’t hell, but you can see it from here.’”
I didn’t know what it meant then, but I do now.
Days, we watched an entire spectrum of thick smoke as it billowed from the black window across the alley. We both knew its menace and how it shortened our lifespans, invading our lungs with its prismatic poison. Despite this, our days were never lacking in color; even when the storm clouds gathered, they would needfully part before we had time to look up from our petty squabbles about the laundry, the rent, and most of all, lack of sex (the last being primarily my concern).
“Insanity is the sound of your own voice, whispering into no one else’s ear.” Another of your gleeful emissions, its crystal clarity cast in sepia tones, your darkening spirit.
Then, amidst our moans and sighs and lamentations, there suddenly emerged the Age of Felicity
Oh Felicity, the irrepressible inconnu that supplanted sense with a strange obsession and haunted your constantly unfocused gaze. Long hours you peered in silence through the fern frost, her very likeness quickening your mind, astonishing your blood.
Winter, year zero.
It was in that season that Manhattan was transplanted by a magician’s wand into some Hyperborean realm as if in a Russian ballet. She was just then suffering her usual moonsickness and in your almost infantile dysphoria, your ark was first sundered on some uncharted coast of Bohemia. I still remember your first meeting, at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, while she was still tugging round that sorry, little dog in tattered form: The Cloud of Unknowing (yes, the first mark of her medievalism). Taking the opportunity, you played your card.
“At least, let there be a silver lining to MY unknowing by letting me discover your name?”
Silence. Bad beginnings.
“My name is John”
“What is yours?”
“Ah, then it was meant to be. I am yours and you are mine.”
“What? What can you mean?”
“You would be a cruel soul indeed to deny my happiness, and I a rough one to refuse accepting it. Thus, we must give ourselves to each other, completely and entirely.”
Confused eyes didn’t deter you and simply bored a new emptiness into your life. Who spoke like that anyway?
“John, you’re a funny guy, but I’ve got laundry to do. Sea-Monkeys to feed. Bubble wrap to pop.” La dame sans merci.
For days afterward, weepy music filled our little cave constantly – Le Vent from Alkan’s Tres Morceux dans le Genre Pathetique, Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses, and at times, his barbarous Passacaile, then onto Joy Division and even Depeche Mode. Dark moods.
Another bit of kismet or arranged chance, or perhaps old-fashioned courtship (but, actually, and most probably, plain old stalking) brought about a more lasting bond. Naked after shipwreck, Nausicaa once again clothed you in a now defunct record store in the East Village.
After that, your meetings were mostly in the native darkness of the Natural History Museum, you showing her the stuffed wildlife, she following you in sheer wonderment, and perhaps in a little bit of fear. And what of this stuffed wildlife that in your eyes seemed so very alive? Indeed, at times, you appeared to stand enraptured in front of those twilighted dioramas.
Pronghorn… Antilocapra Americana
Antelope jackrabbit… Leus Alleni
Musk ox… Ovibos moschatus
Ooooooooooooooh, he’s a hairy one.
Common loon… Gavia immer (“The most prevalent species found around in the Meat Packing district at this hour.”)
All characters, you identified amongst our circle of friends and loose associations.
It is with these same associations that I have tried over many moons to invoke your ghost on the board. At times, the shuttle was shared variously between Mr Great-Heart, Lord Hate-Good, Madame Bubble (who did it merely on condition that I attempt to contact a number of her dead pets), Mr Fucked-Brain (and can you believe, Much Afraid), and let us not forget rugous, little Mr Feeblemind and alas, the unforgettable Mr Sagacity. Of course, all this black magic could only but eventually tempt Mrs Bat-Eyes, the Bitch of Many Centuries, Mr Msason, and even that pitiful, little Demas. For completeness sake, I eventually tapped the feckless Old Honest and lastly, Felicity herself…
But we are getting ahead of ourselves and must return to that long courtship that changed everything.
Oh, trice crossed Felicity! You, John, became her Oklahoma whirlwind, consuming everything in your path, leaving her disoriented as you cleverly removed all her familiar landmarks and replaced them with a new set of transgressions. Your candle truly burned at both ends. And finally, at your wits’ end, you took her to a late-night reshowing of Parajanov’s The Legend of the Suram Fortress (Oh, what could you have had in mind?), and it was there that you first dared to clutch her hand.
“SHE SHOOK BRETH FRUM ME”
She liked to describe you as something straight out of the 18th century: impavid mien, old-world manners – top hat, tails and ridding crop at the Knitting Factory, the occasional (and always orgulous) “are you serious” cravat. Oh, Tolerance, you are a steadfast widow.
You spent gentle, poetic weeks in her slipstream, chasing her gentle spoor and then suddenly, amidst a foxes wedding atop Wave Hill, you were gone:
“Moving downtown, near McSorleys”
Oh, muses, what shall we say about Felicity: Church of England, slender, little beanpole, waxy pallor of a holy relic, blush of a broken rose, cupid bow lips, preternatural and possibly, yes probably, possessed.
And you, John, black raven-haired, androgynous locks, the faintest of crow’s feet, fashionably skinny and, for a man, certainly heteroclite. Thin voice and long fingers, slender lips always a snide remark away from disaster.
“U ARE A SHITHEAD”
In those days (really the cigarette butts of nights snuffed out at 2 or 3a.m), your daily toil up Hill Lucre began at six crossing paths in the Financial District with By-ends and that unrestful gaggle of carbon suited I-bankers. In the fogs and snows of February, the city was given over to grisaille. Always late, you hopped on the R line. Arriving, at Rector Street, only to be met by “that Basilisk”, your boss, the abdominous Mr Skill. For months, you toiled in that “slick glass dick”, temping for $14.50 an hour. What prosperity!
“These shitheads are virtually throwing money out the windows. Bankers paying me for next to nothing.”
It was then, while collecting rejection slips from small magazines, that you began The Guide. In between fits of all-nighters, you’d invite me round and we became a threesome, united by a common hatred of clubs, house music, and nouvelle French cafes. Building, by fits and starts, our own little mutual admiration society…
I remember us once being stuck uptown at an illegal rave, the Russians and Israelites taking turns spinning their trance, the base tones detonating like little depth charges through the low hum of gas generators. We swayed in the summer heat and leaned against a tree stump as a police boat cast its fiery eye through the surrounding trees, setting each branch aflame. You somehow managed to share a bitter pill of ecstasy with that tenderest of Felicities so that the world nudged against you like purest organza silk. It was still normal then for you two to have conversations consisting entirely of questions:
“Why do people need drugs to make them happy?”
“Why should people be happy without them?”
“Well, isn’t that a very cynical way to view the world? What about love, poetry, children?”
“Well, I suppose it comes down to a person’s capacity for happiness and what has the capacity to make him happy, doesn’t it?”
“Well… and what makes you happy?”
“Well, it should be you, shouldn’t it, little duck?”
“Do I make you happy?”
Chewing the insides of your gums as the drugs began to take hold.
“Do you feel anything yet?”
“What am I supposed to feel?”
“What do you want to feel?”
“Well, I suppose that is what you are supposed to feel.”
Happy then, but the relationship would one day move into its endgame of declarative statements:
“You don’t care about me.”
“Of course I do.”
“That is a lie.”
“Of course it isn’t.”
But alas, we are once again, getting ahead of ourselves. Now that we have left you once more in the graceful arms of opportunity, it is only up to you, petty egoist, to ravish her amidst the Riverside gloaming. Ah Felicity, you finally kissed her hot swan’s neck and for the first time, strangely (I think) purred. Another hour of oeillades, until unrestful dawn had at last spread her fiery wing tips across each end of the Hudson. Then, finally bored of seeing the dancing of shirtless, dreadlocked white boys and down-to-their-bras girls (whose failing glow sticks tricked the air out in feints, which couldn’t muster even the slightest interest), we three began our journey downtown. We would eventually walk well over 100 blocks in what felt afterward like a final bastinado. (Note to reader: We were, unfortunately, forced to do so as Felicity by that point was unable to stop rubbing herself against the cold, slick tiles of the subway walls.) In our state, the entire earth turned to thistledown and left us with the unanswerable question: What does it mean when one’s own fingers touch, tip to tip, yet each one feels a stranger to the other, folded as they are in a knit of double-sided sensation? By late morning, we ended our stroll on an anonymous aluminum paint rooftop, watching the scarlet sun levitate over a denuded Soho, whose alleyways and rayless windows resembled the interior of an ornate columbarium. Felicity’s eyes were then lashing out “GREEK FEYRE” as you started to tease her for her recently being “possessed”. Whoever said you can’t manufacture love had never taken a pill of ecstasy.
Fig. 9 “Felicity”
Even you, John, would agree that New York is a strange place at five in the morning. It’s almost as if the place shouldn’t exist. It is a city between two worlds. Ironic then, that when I looked into your distant, unforgiving eyes, I knew you too were living in between two worlds, not just at 5a.m., but at all times. On rare occasions, you would prick your flesh and allow yourself to move amongst us.
“What do you think of Felicity?” you sputtered out over coffee. As you never asked my opinion about anything regarding women, I thought it my duty to give a considered response:
“What do you mean?”
“She really queers the pitch?”
“‘Queers the pitch’? What a strange and outmoded turn of phrase. What is your pretentious ass talking about now?”
“None of my spells seem to be working on her.”
“She seems pretty taken by you, if you ask me.”
“That’s exactly the problem. She seems so, but really she is utterly bored by me. She’s like a little Circe, no, rather a Siren, that is only trying to seduce me into shipwreck. She knows I like her, so she secretly thinks she can convert me.”
“Yes, she is devoutly Christian, but not in any traditional way. She would say ‘spiritual’, but I think she sees something inside me, a tiny crack where she can stick her little, holy crowbar in and pry me open.”
“Why do you think that? Aren’t the English all atheists?”
“Her parents were Scottish or something, but settled in some little nowhere called Little Missenden, where she grew up. She is religious, all right. Her parents where missionaries at one point, but she doesn’t want to admit this to herself. But she can’t shake it.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“Well, I’ve got to convert her before she coverts me.”
“Convert her to what? The devil?”
“Of course not, that would be ridiculous. I’ve got to convert her to me. I’ve got to trick her out of believing she can convert me and instead, make her try to find something here on this earth that she can hold on to. Something mythical enough to let her forget all that hidden religious mysticism.”
“And what is that?”
“In my mind, I think she needs to grow more attached to the flesh. Not in any carnal way, but in a way that makes her attached to living in the religion of her body: the sensation that only another person can give her. The mystery that makes one even curse a god.”
“Love, sex and rockets?”
“No, not love, nothing so tired and irresponsible as that, but awareness. Awareness of the moment, here and now and lost forever. She is always living for somewhere else, something else. So, I bore her, because I am only here in front of her. She can’t understand that IS everything, the entire universe.”
“And what will you do about it?”
“I need to do something to help her find the immediacy in anything, in everything. Experiences that will shake her out of her body and then, violently force her right back into it. She needs an itch, what Whitman called to ‘urge and urge and urge’. She needs, in fact, to understand that we are not humans at all, but rather that underneath it all, we are nothing other than beasts.”
“That all sounds mystical as well.”
“Not if there is nothing else in it. She doesn’t have that natural feral instinct. She is too holy for that. Ultimately, she has to understand real, biological craving, not for anything in particular, but for the very experience of craving. She craves, but doesn’t enjoy it, the craving. She only wants what she craves for. “
“Which you want to be you?”
“That is secondary. My religion is craving. And I want her to crave like I crave. You see, then there is no me or her, just craving, just the endless feeling of dying while at the same time living. At that moment, when you feel like that, you feel you can do anything. I need to be with someone who at any moment can and will do anything. Once you don’t have that, you can’t live anymore.”
“Like daredevils without a cliff.”
“Yes, we need a precipice to want to jump off of.”
Dear reader, it all sounded good enough to write down when blitzed, but now, well… these are in Eliot’s words,
“Tears shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”
SHE NEVUR UNDRSTOOD. MAYB NOW. I STILL CRAVE. HEERE. ENDLESS CRAVING. HERR KIND UF CRAVING.
None of us ever knew what made you begin The Guide at that time, or by then completely understood your relationship to the shadowy Willow, the “other girl in your life”. Yes, indeed, we knew, but the barest of details, gathered in your few moments of incoherent bathos. We knew that you two had grown up in proximity to each other in the “wilderness”, that she, “electively mute” and a “child of the wild” (perhaps a little Mowgli), hadn’t spoken since she was three years old. We also knew that you’d faithfully kept all the precious, little acorns she’d squirreled away in her diaries. Basically, these diaries were her only form of communication with the outside world. In a way, you said, it was Willow that was the original author of The Guide. For some reason, it was clear, you saw a part of yourself in her, but even then, it seemed rather peculiar, because ultimately, Willow was for you, the Tree in the Garden of your youth, the source and continued fount of all Guilt.
SHE SUFFRS AND I WAS HER SUFFERING
Some of what lies herein is taken from Willow’s diary (another of the tragedies that seemed to harry you like a harpy’s wings). The first mention of “WILO” occurred with Much Afraid, that spooked child of 33. No doubt with him, the shuttle shot straight out of his hands before we’d barely turned down the lights. But then, more and more her visitations came:
PAW TOLD ME 2 STAY CLEAR OF THEM BOYS
Broken, short at first, then with more confidence until they became a virtual flood. And it was through this that we confirmed Willow’s secret and your suffering. Oh, how silly we seem, dear Retrospect, in the ampleness of your arms.
To read on, buy the paperback or eBook version here.