The Waxwing Slain – short story from, 2004


This was the first story I had published on the now defunct It owes a little too much to a certain J G Ballard story, but re-reading it I am rather favourably impressed with its spin on literary jealousy and ego.






Traffic had been light, so running into a string of cars at the Goatstown crossroads was disappointing. I was driving against the main bulk of traffic coming away from Dublin, which had built up quite considerably – at least my line is small, I thought, as I looked at the solid mass of unmoving cars beside me, travelling in the other direction. It was High Summer, one of those days when the sun almost nauseates with a rancid, piercing light. Both my windows rolled down all the way, the airconditioning set to the highest setting – despite all this, the smell of melting plastic persisted.

As I eased into the end of the line of cars, indicating right for Stillorgan, I heard a strange sound which, nevertheless, nagged at the edge of familiarity. It took a moment to realise what it was. It was my own voice, reciting the poem which I had published a few months before, The Waxwing Slain. I must explain that this poem was not entirely my own work, though we’ll come to that later.

My voice was coming from about six or seven car stereo systems scattered among the line of traffic to my right. All the cars driving in the opposite direction also had their windows down. With recordings of The Waxwing Slain being played on stereos scattered at various points in the block of traffic, a kind of polyphonic speaker relay was set up. Each listener was at a different stage in the poem, though all were within a minute or so of the start. One driver actually started playing the recording just after I realised what was going on; the opening line, “I was the shadow of the Waxwing Slain/By the false azure on the windowpane” chimed into the ether. Most of the others were about a minute further along. All this created a canon effect. At certain points, just as in a musical canon, the babel of voices – my own voices – resolved into a harmonic. One came as I listened, deliberately keeping my gaze at the car in front of me to prevent recognition – the point when I read “Was it Sherlock Holmes who/Reversed his shoes?” I seemed to have read these lines with particular emphasis, and a succession of explosive “Was it“s came from the stereo relay.

It’s a platitude that one’s own voice sounds odd, sounds faintly ridiculous, when heard recorded. My own voice always sounded gloopy and bland to me, but this canon of Waxwings did not sound like my voice. It sounded robotic and musical at once, which was why it took me some time to recognise it as my own. Or, indeed, to recognise the words as my own (as they ostensibly were), although we’ll come to that later. Before I can tell you about my life as a literary success, I must tell you about my life as a literary failure.

The history of literature – the movements filled with lofty ideas, the endless manifestos and counter-manifestos, the all-too-serious sense of mission – can be considered a history of envy. Or rather a series of envies – between supposed friends and fellow writers. That has been my experience both as literary failure and success.

Since some stage in mid-adolescence impossible to pin down, I have considered myself a writer. And not just a writer, but an artist. A literary artist. The person who awoke my never-sleeping envy threatened that sense of self; because, at an age when I was still constructing elaborate fantasies of my glorious literary career, he had not only written but published three novels. And he stole my name.

The literary fantasist constructs an entire career in their reveries. The ecstatically received debut, a mould-breaking work that sets the tone for new fiction. Interviewers cast themselves worshipfully at the feet of my wit. Casual remarks that achieve the status of aphorisms. The speculation mounts for the second novel. Can he deliver? It hardly seems possible. That first novel, after all, was a stunning condensation of twenty-something years of experience and an eternity of timeless insight. And then the triumphant return, the sense of a richness and maturity that surpasses the previous work. The literary fantasist daydreams trenchant and controversial interviews that establish him at the peak of the profession.

Of course, the literary fantasist prefers to consider the interviews, the reviews, the covers, the blurbs far more than the actual business of sitting down to write. I saw “Andrew Browne” on covers and frontispieces, in an austere, tasteful font. I saw phrases like Andrew Browne… the best novelist of his generation, blurb quotes like “another triumph for Andrew Browne” or “it is not too soon in Andrew Browne’s career to proclaim him… possibly the best writer in the English language today.” I even, in time, imagined the name “Andrew Browne”, like JD Salinger, spurning these impedimenta of the literary-publicity complex and standing, naked and alone, on the cover of his books.

Imagine when a contemporary, and what’s worse, a somewhat despised contemporary, begins to achieve literary fame – perhaps not with the hyperbolic excesses of my imagination – but a genuine fame. What’s worse, imagine that contemporary has a name that differs only by a silent “e” from one’s own. Andrew Brown, a writer to watch this coming year. Andrew Brown’s third (third!) novel builds on the success of his previous work.

Andrew Brown and myself have much in common. We both are well-built, rather beefy in fact – and thereby give an impression of robust good health. We both look like hearty chaps, just about to head for a couple of steaks after a day’s rugby or rowing or foxhunting. This is not an advantage when one is spending one’s college years attempting to look like one is wrestling with the major issues of existence. Poets and philosophers are stereotypically consumptive, anguished looking fellows, and the literary fantasist is a great man for stereotype.

We were both members of the college literary club, under the auspices of which weekly meetings were held. Here dreadful poems on loss of faith and tepid prose vignettes of drunkenness would be read out, before the real fun began of praise or blame, carefully considered for maximum impact. Both Andrew Brown(e)s kept silent; I wrote some poems that were read out anonymously and unjustifiably excoriated. He probably did too.

I got to know Andrew Brown from the trips to the student bar after these evenings. The underlying discontent with the literary club we shared must have drawn us to each other, that and the shyness with girls neither of us ever really shed. It was a long time before me realised that we shared a surname – he went by “Andy” those days, whereas I have always been an Andrew, irreducible to any diminutive. Andy, as (for the sake of clarity) I will refer to him, was never less than friendly and polite to me. In the early days of our friendship, I saw this friendliness and politeness as fear, as symptomatic of an inner weakness. Of course, I was still at that adolescent stage (that some never leave) that confuses obnoxiousness and arrogance with strength.

Andy was generally unpretentious, but he had a small stock of what I would call “party pieces.” These were declamations on some literary or aesthetic subject that he had, evidently, rehearsed before, probably alone. I heard some at least four or five times. One particular favourite was provoked by any discussion of the alleged decline of literature. These discussions are of course beloved throughout the ages – the self-selected few, mourning the unstoppable conquest of barbarism, derive great pleasure from the thought that they alone keep the flame of culture burning. The barbarians are always at that gate. Andy was rightly sceptical of this. One of the passages of his monologue concerned the trivialities the authors of antiquity concerned themselves with (this was part of an argument that any contemporary fixation with trivia was nothing new) – “the great themes – the transformation of people into animals and animals into people, various sexual positions, the glorification of whoever happened to be paying the writer at that particular moment…” Like all similar monologues, delivered with an air of authority it managed to convince the listener that here was someone who knew what he was talking about.

I kept in touch with Andy in a desultory way after graduation – an email or text message every couple of months, meeting in Dublin every four months or so for strained conversation revolving around mutual acquaintances. We both eventually started work in jobs hardly commensurate with our Bohemian leanings; he as a sales rep for a drug company, I as part of the public relations team of a major bank.

One day I got a text message from Andy, obviously not sent to me individually but sent to many, telling me that his first novel was to published three months later by a major international publisher. There would be celebratory drinks in the Stag’s Head the following Friday. It was the first I had heard of a novel, let alone that it was ready for publication.

In the Stag’s Head on Friday an assortment of hangers-on, people from college neither of us had seen in years turned out. I was surprised that there was hardly anyone from Andy’s life beyond college. In that crowd, I suddenly realised, it was very possible that I was Andy’s closest friend.

The novel was called Sweet Science, a solid, well-crafted story of a failed boxer’s decline and fall. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, although nothing (to my thinking) particularly memorable either. While I congratulated Andy to his face, privately I felt confident that whenever I would finally get round to writing a novel, it would make far more of a mark.

With his second, Land of Lost Content, Andy began to garner more serious attention. It was an inventive variation on that most worn-out of topics, the coming-of-age story. It followed the conventional path of these novels – the protagonist, from a comfortable middle-class background like the one both of us shared, went to college and had the usual romantic and intellectual experiences – first love, crisis of religious faith. Rather than maturing, he regresses to childhood, which was the slight twist on the formula. There was a freshness and vitality about the writing that marked out Andy as a genuinely promising talent. A third novel, Mercy, a short, simple tale with Gothic overtones, set during the Civil War, consolidated his reputation. Around this time we began to spend more time together. We still had the same rather strained rapport, the same wariness. It says something about his essential loneliness that I realised around this time that not only had I been his closest friend at the Stag’s Head gathering, I was his closest friend in the world.

Perhaps Andy occasionally detected some resentment on my part. There would have been a sharpness on the phone, perhaps the occasional noticeable blankness as I drifted into my own thoughts as he went on about some issue with his agent or other. On the whole, however, I managed not to show this resentment, and felt suitably guilty. There was a politeness, a formality about our relationship. I could never imagine us teasing each other about anything – romance, work, literature.

My own writing had ground to a halt. Various ideas and plans fizzled out for want of persistence on my part. Andy’s success had stoked my ambition. Now I wanted not only to be published, but to stun the literary world. There was, as always, a plethora of young literary aspirants. I felt I needed to rise above them all, Andy included, in one motion.

All potential subjects seemed hackneyed, played out. I decided that what was needed was the creation of something utterly new. I wanted to write something sui generis, the first of a whole new genre. What is it, to create something utterly new? Something absolutely original? Is it even possible? I would seize on an idea and, in short order, exhaust it.

I tried, Lord knows I tried. I conceived of Tyranny Considered One of the Fine Arts, a series of essays on lesser-known but nevertheless impressively bloodthirsty tyrants. Following de Quincey’s argument – that when murder is done and the guilty punished, a sort of connoisseurship can take over – I applied it to tyranny. Queen Ranavolana I of Madagascar, Heliogabalus of Rome; such was my human material. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really believe that tyranny was a mere art. Over the years, I’ve often liked to see myself as a rather amoral, insouciant figure, a Wilde or Baudelaire casting elegant poses on the brink of hell. Yet earnestness kept breaking in.

My other attempts to forge something new revolved around science, more particularly mathematics and physics. I read a few popular accounts of the various theories of Infinity – Galileo’s realisation that an infinite set is one which contains an infinite set, Cantor’s discovery of the transfinite, and his fruitless search to prove the continuum hypothesis. I conceived a mathematical novel, one whose protagonist was the mystical idea of Infinity.

I came up against the insuperable obstacle that Infinity is not exactly a sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps an abstraction can be made the hero of a story (and I mean the actual abstraction, not a personification of it), but it eluded my craft.

I moved on to what struck me, initially, as more fertile ground. Could God have created the world any differently? Could there be a world where the gravitational constant, or the boiling point of Mercury, or the laws of plate tectonics, be any different? Moving from the theoretical to the particularly, could there be a world without New Zealand, or Wlliam Ewart Gladstone or Nabokov’s Pale Fire?

I was working on these ideas – working on a series of meaninglessly complex diagrams of the new theory of non-existence. I hadn’t actually written anything at that stage. I had reached a point where writing was pointless, lacking any plan of attack – I had nothing to write about, only grandiloquent fantasies. Deep down, I knew that I was thrashing about, with no direction.

One day Andy gave me a box of odds and ends he was throwing out, trying to “declutter” himself, as he said. It was a nice gesture, though I don’t think he realised the implied condescension. Maybe he did – maybe my conception of Andy as someone well-meaning and kindly who unjustly aroused my resentment is wrong. Perhaps he was really a Machiavellian manipulator of human desires, obligations and aims. I am more or less entirely without what could be called “political” guile, and sometimes tend to see it in every action of everyone else. Perhaps Andy shares this trait with me, too.

One of the objects in the box was a blank notebook. At first glance it was an old, worn notebook, but on closer inspection this was a trompe l’oeil. It was a new, rather heavy notebook, whose carefully cultivated look of being worn was a trick of the marketing trade. Like all writers – both real writers and literary fantasists – I have an inexhaustible appetite for the how-to tips of other writers. One piece of (to my mind unhelpful) advice that I once read was to buy some expensive pens and some expensive paper, and to use these to plan your work. By some sort of sympathetic magic, the materials were supposed to elevate your creative mind. I always thought it rotten advice, too redolent of gimcrack ideas of what’s “artistic”. Which is not to say I rejected it.

Thus I decided to play with the notebook. I wrote a few sketchy phrases. First some automatic writing – I set a pen (a cheap biro) on the paper and began to write “Rome did not fall because the depredations of barbarians, but fell for other reasons. It fell after some years of pain.” I stopped. The automatic quality had disappeared from the writing, in my mind I had begun to try to construct some kind of meaningful sentence in my account of Rome’s fall.

I wrote a few more random phrases and words. “Tubetrain. Tubetrain.” I doodled a little, creating a grid, encircled by a serrated line. I wrote “Andy Warhol never existed.”

Why the last, the negation of Andy Warhol? What I had written in the notebook had reflected the varied preoccupations of the time, although I’m at a loss to explain “tubetrain.” There was a small Warhol exhibition coming to Dublin. I meant to check it out. I had often been in the habit, especially during boring phone conversations, of doodling phrases with an at best tangential connection to the conversation. That I should randomly write such a phrase did strike me as odd, but not exceptional. Nevertheless, it stayed in my mind.

The next day, in town, I picked up a free gallery guide. I noticed that the Warhol exhibition was no longer advertised. Unusual, I thought. Later, I looked at the gallery website. Again no mention.

A couple of years before, I had lent my copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album to a girl I was trying to impress who I had since lost touch with. Various rather embarrassed emails (one drunken evening, I had made completely unreturned advances to her) had failed to produce a response. Thus, a few days later, I decided to buy another copy when I saw it discounted. It was only when I got home that I noticed that the song ‘Andy Warhol’ was missing. Presumably this was some kind of money-grabbing scam, a new release leaving out one of the tracks to force one to buy a compilation. Trying to track down some information on this on the web, I did an search for “david bowie”, “hunky dory” and “andy warhol.”

I got no results. Refining it to “david bowie” and “andy warhol” produced none either. Then “andy warhol.” None. Presuming that the arbitrary god of the Internet had struck again, I tried another search engine, then another. It was strange, Andy Warhol had been deleted from the ether completely. I tried various art sites, and again Warhol was completely absent.

I went to the bookshops, looked in directories of art and found the same result. Andy Warhol had been written out of art history, indeed all history. Oddly, there didn’t seem to have been such a seismic shift in the art world. No other artist seemed to have disappeared from view, and his ideas, such as they were, seemed to have become popularised anyway. For instance it was Truman Capote who said, in 1973, that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.

There was only one source of information on Andy Warhol extant, and that was in my own small collection of art books. It will surprise you how calm I was about all this. I did not doubt my sanity, and as I still remembered my little scribble in Andy Browne’s notebook, I didn’t doubt what had happened. With great equanimity, I accepted that I had access to a supernatural power of some kind. It’s amazing, when this actually happens, how calmly, indeed almost languidly, one accepts this. After all, it is no longer supernatural but natural, part of the world.

At first I assumed that this was a once-off, some kind of aberration in space-time. I doodled some more in the notebook, stating the non-existence of prominent and not-so-prominent people living and dead.

Gradually I discerned that some things had their own necessity, and some things didn’t. Named living persons, and the artistic creations of named living persons, were immune to the notebook’s power. After some more experimentation I realised this applied not only to people – I managed to negate the existence of the dodo, of Halicarnasuss, of the Falkland Islands. What exactly happened to the population of the Falklands I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps there was a slight rise in the population of Britain. I managed to reduce the number of extant works of Aeschylus from seven to four, but the tragedian himself proved stubbornly resistant to elimination.

What was equally striking was the fact that, while the world seemed to lose these creations and indeed creators with surprisingly little change, they continued to exist in my library. I carefully kept my eye on a copy of Pygmalion while negating it in the notebook. It continued to exist, but the play itself did not have an existence in the outside world (oddly, My Fair Lady did, “based on an idea by George Bernard Shaw”, an unpublished, fragmentary outline for a story)

One day I wrote “There was never a book called Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov.” I enjoyed Nabokov too much to try and negate him, but was amused by the possibility that my favourite of his books would become a private pleasure for me. I assure you I had no thought of personal gain.

With Nabokov’s book duly expunged from libraries, from bookshops, from the collective memory (it seemed) of book-lovers, I settled to read the book. It is a rare pleasure, one denied us in this age of mass production, the joy of reading a work of art created just for oneself.

As I read, a thought struck me. I had always felt that the central poem around which the work is based was itself a fine piece of literary art. It deserved appreciation in its own right. It may strike the reader as blindingly obvious now, but the sudden realisation that nothing whatsoever prevented me from publishing the poem Pale Fire as my own work only hit me then. It was simply a matter of typing.

The rest you know – the long poem The Waxwing Slain which was universally praised and whose enormous commercial success resurrected poetry as a mainstream art form. Within months there were numerous audiobooks, a film adaptation in the works. The imaginative leap for a young Irish scribbler to convincingly inhabit an ageing American professor mourning a dead daughter was widely commented on. No one knew the leap was via a Russian émigré author, still well-known for Lolita..

Thus The Waxwing Slain audiobook, blaring at me from all available speakers on the Goatstown crossroads. I smiled to myself at the moment, the feeling of one’s fame being crowned. The lights changed and I drove on. Looking back, this was the highpoint of my career, the moment when I felt most satisfied with it all. I felt Nabokov himself would appreciate the turn of events.

Andy, who I must admit was the first living person I tried to negate, had found work on his next novel increasingly difficult. “It isn’t the same” he said, “before I had seemingly endless ideas and no craft, and now I have all craft and no ideas.” He surprised me by getting married. I was his best man. It was one of the last times we talked. At the wedding, I felt uncomfortable with is obvious resentment of my literary success. It was how I had been to him, I saw now.

I’ve written two more novels. The Violent Bear It Away and Day of the Locust. Reviewers worldwide have lauded my versatile imagination, my ability to inhabit entirely different linguistic worlds. They are a little puzzled how at my works American setting, set in a specific time without any apparent awkwardness, or the air of a period piece. Of course, I typed those two novels, directly transcribing (occasionally with very slight editing) from the only extant copies in my own library.

But there was no joy in their creation, or in the reception they received. The moment had come when I realised that literary success as an end in itself was a sham. The elaborate daydreams when I dreamed of rave reviews and blurbs were revealed as rather tawdry fantasies. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to write a story, regardless completely of the sensation it would create, the reputation it would forge for me. I began to write this story.

And who will understand me, now that Andy Warhol and the dodo and Pale Fire are not only not with us, but their existence has ceased? There comes a time in anyone’s life when to confess – to a loved one, in a religious ceremony, or in the full glare of the world in a book or television programme – becomes an unbearable need. I, alas, have no audience that can comprehend my acts; all will assume this is merely a clever fiction. Even Andy will think it merely a tasteless literary in-joke, so I intend changing the names of all concerned. Only I, or an ideal and hence non-existent reader, will know that this is a confession.

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