panic in the streets

I saw something strange in the streets of the city today. Another city.
You know how they talk about normality, how its intrinsic oddity can
barely be contained?
Today, I was amazed how actively citizens were unseeing the city,
as in China Miéville’s City and the City.
The city’s grotesquely aberrant quality, its headlong flight from normality, was
not just barely contained but its
containment bespoke an array of factors, structures, strategies, psychological,
architectural, historical. And creative. In the sense that a consensus
is created about that which we refuse to acknowledge. The strangeness
was not barely contained, it had been gagged and was in the very act
of being pulled into a van and sped away. It was being held by force.
All this was happening everywhere around. We were all witnesses.
We were all called on to bear witness to a kidnapping. Weren’t we?
The reality demanded we bear witness. The angles were all wrong.
The way the light played off them. People stood as if on a stage.
A man talked into his earpiece in an accent that must have been faked.
Chief fucking executive. American. A man slouched down the street
in jandals, swinging his right arm wide, the hand holding a lit cigarette.
Implausibly relaxed. As they do in New Zealand, gatherings of four or five
occupied the maximum of space, one on a bench, another standing, two
further off, hardly connected but still engaged, in some drama collecting
them, arranging them, distributing them. Nodal points in space. People either
moved, rapidly, on insane trajectories like rips, or held their position.
Outside the backpackers. A diminishing order of figures. The dog. The dog.
By the library. And a perfectly suited man standing at an acute angle
to the dog’s stare. With the same perfect equipoise. A woman with cellphone
texting, intent on so doing, electromagnetic tentacles gripping her skull.
Crossing the road towards me. But the corners opened into looser angles.
A partly torn down poster announced a doorway to Narnia. No wonder they had
come and removed it. Only to the degree that it would not compel belief.
Rips and tears. In the fabric of the city. Too soon a motley, a Frankenstein
assembly of ill-fitting parts. The stitching undoing to reveal…
Not quite putrefaction. The outrageous thought that put a dead man’s
arm to another’s torso. A woman in white shorts, her tan hastily
painted on, her thighs affectedly muscular. A building from the 1970s.
Proud as any mausoleum. Grave-robbers for citizens. Taking what they needed
to provide a simulation of life. Getting on with it. ‘Its’ everywhere
around. De-subjected materials. Inorganic parts in the thrall of
performance art. Common everything. Good ignorance. Good ignorance.
Why did I see it and nobody else? I looked for recognition in the faces.
Later I thought of a joke: Even the mirror frustrated his efforts
to find recognition. The man in the mirror averts his eyes.
Citizens of Auckland likewise, but not really citizens of anywhere.
The wooden barricade running down the footpath was always there.
It may as well have been. The streets were uninhabitable. But
occupied by people who didn’t realise it. As if after the bomb.
Of course after the bomb. Inchoate cancers even now progressing
to incipience in every unconscious body. Caused by a failure to flee.
Run for your lives! The city is contaminated! What else gives the
building that line? Those clouds are not naturally formed. That light
turning concrete plastic. Like those yellow bricks that show no age,
unlike their Victorian counterparts, that just get dirty. So writes
Miéville in the Kraken. Because this is where
I was going. To buy a book. Pushed off the footpath by the man
with sawing cigarette arm. Eyeballed by the male half of the couple
drinking from stalked goldfish bowls of urinous wine. And the one
who’d dropped from space, his tie in forced nonchalance draped over
his shoulder, with hair like a dry tussock, at lunch with the
younger woman dissembling ignorance of his ulterior motive, balding.
They were all central casting. All self-consciously self-absorbed.
To not notice the strange flatness of the meagre public space.
To notice it as a mere platform. To stand on. Laugh with a girlfriend
against the scenery. And the scale – forced perspective.
Women with unaccountably large heads. The toes of men. To place
onself in a doorway to a closed and commercial upstairs,
to grab the next passerby by the arm, to engage her in intense
conversation about a shared past, a past that is sheer invention,
that was invented just then. The memories! Invented. The shared
acquaintances – a litany of similar sounding names, names with the
same root, like conjugated Latin verbs. Only the minute flicker
of fear that she will be found out. Covered by a surfeit of eye
make-up. A surface leading directly into her temple. A sucking
sound nobody else can hear. But me. From a tiny blowhole –
saliva not the sea. The voice of the aporetic, of the missing gene
in the chain, the series that can’t complete itself, the gear
with missing teeth, the faint grind, the wheels that spin but don’t
connect. That gain no traction. The tiniest wheelspin. The littlest
graunch. A smell of oil by-products and sickness. Later Radiohead
sing “Fake Plastic Trees.” And Thom Yorke, the interview read out,
talks about a lonely drunken evening and a sort of minor breakdown.
How the polystyrene man line made him laugh.
He just crumbles and burns. Memories! Just like the building
from the 1970s, shared and made up a second ago. A shared
mausoleum. A bare container.