RICHARD UNWIN, writer.
The first book hadn’t sold many copies, but the reviews had been kind. “An absurdist take on the creation of the world, with imagination to spare,” said The Times. “Fantasy hokum it may be, but it’s hokum told with wit and heart,” said The Guardian. The Daily Mail said, “I loved the bit with the talking snake.”
And there was an unmistakeable buzz about the sequel, that this would be the break-out novel. The settings were more exotic, the action more intense: there were big battles, and chase sequences, and bushes that burned inexplicably, and not just one plague but ten! Hollywood had already taken out an option on it, even before it had hit the book stores. Rumour was that Charlton Heston had signed up to take the lead. Richard Unwin, it was generally agreed, was a writer who was going places.
The book launch went down a treat. Unwin had been so nervous beforehand – what if nobody came? what if people came, but nobody cared? – he’d never liked parties, or crowds, or even much talking to people one on one, that’s why he’d turned to writing in the first place. But the room was packed, and the audience well happy on their free wine and quiche, and as he shuffled on to the stage shyly he looked so endearing, and they laughed with enthusiasm at his reading, even at the bits that weren’t supposed to be funny, even when he put in one or two many ‘begat’s. He had to sign a lot of books that night, and it began to hurt his wrist the number of times he wrote his name, but it was a good pain, he rather began to enjoy himself. “You’d better get used to this,” said his new agent, and he nodded happily, and had a glass of wine, and began to relax.
The very next day his publishers called him into a meeting. “We’re going to give you a three book deal!” the publisher exclaimed. “Anything you want to write, whatever comes out of that noggin of yours!” “All right,” said Unwin. “We’re going to make you huge! Rowling huge!” “All right.” And, fired up, Unwin went home, set to work. He wrote all day and all night, letting the words take over, and he didn’t hold back this time, there was no doubt, he was good, he knew he was. Within three months he had three novels finished, just like that. The publishers were so amazed they doubled his advance. The first book he called ‘Leviticus’, the second ‘Numbers’. He couldn’t think of a title for the third for ages, he had to take a long bath, until at last it just rolled off his mind. “Deuteronomy,” he liked saying it out loud, “Deu-ter-on-om-y.” He looked it up in the dictionary, found out that it meant ‘second law’, but that didn’t put him off.
Reviews for the new trilogy were complimentary, if a little cautious. He was the critics’ new darling, and they weren’t prepared to stamp on him, not just yet. The Times called ‘Leviticus’ ‘brave and fearless… taking the risks we must expect of modern literature.’ The Guardian decided to trumpet ‘Numbers’ as a ‘return to form’: ‘Those of us who felt after the disappointment of ‘Leviticus’ that Unwin’s career was numbered will have to think again!” The Daily Mail said, of ‘Deuteronomy’, that they hadn’t liked the last two books much, but this was one was better, and they liked the bit with the haemorrhoid curses.
But you can’t fool the reading public. And the talking donkey in ‘Numbers’ just didn’t catch the imagination the way the talking snake had. There was an announcement that a movie adaptation of ‘Deuteronomy’ was on the cards, with Danny De Vito somewhat miscast as King Og the Giant, but in the end it came to nothing, and no one noticed, and no one cared.
Still, Richard Unwin was a publishing phenomenon. If not necessarily for the popularity of his books, at least for the speed at which he churned them out – ‘Joshua’, ‘Judges’, ‘Samuel’, ‘Ruth’. Maybe it was just too much for the public to keep up with. Certainly the critics stopped reviewing them all; they’d say, quite rightly, that if they missed Unwin’s latest there’d be another one along in a minute. And every review would be polite, they’d never be damning, they still all admired the quality of the prose, the fire of that imagination. They were undoubtedly good books, put a compendium of them together you could call it the Good Book. But privately the critics would say that the problem with Unwin’s stuff was that it had all got a little preachy. ‘A return to form!’ every new review would say, but no one could quite identify exactly when Unwin had gone off form, when suddenly, without people noticing, his readers had stopped believing in him.
Unwin was still on the convention circuit, pimping his book to his dwindling fan base. After one especially unenlightening panel he shared with Martin Amis and Dan Brown about the death of the novel he was signing autographs in the hotel lounge. There was a young woman, surely no more than eighteen, twenty at the most? – and she came up to him, and passed him a copy of his latest, ‘Ecclesiastes’, and asked him to sign it to her. “I love your work,” she said, and shoved her breasts in his face. Unwin took the lid off his special autographing pen, the first time the lid had come off all day. “Well,” he said. “Well. Who shall I make it out to?” “Just write down your room number,” said the girl. “Okay,” said Unwin.
She made love to him with a tenderness that made him cry. He apologised for the crying, but she said it hadn’t put her off. They lay back in bed together, and she smiled at him, and he smiled at her, and he didn’t know what to say. “So, you like my work?” he asked, and she said she did. “That’s nice,” he said, “thank you, would you like me to give you a reading?” “All right,” she said. And so, propped up high on the pillows, all naked, still sweaty, and just a little bit blissed out, he began to read: “Saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The girl frowned; “Can you read me some of your earlier stuff? I love the earlier stuff. Can you read me the bit with the talking snake?” So Unwin agreed; he picked up her copy of ‘Genesis’, he read about the naughty serpent, and as he did so she reached between his legs and kneaded away, and he rather wished he’d made his serpent talk for just a little bit longer.
He wrote her a book, in the frenzy of his passion. He called it ‘Song of Solomon’. He sent it to her over email. She didn’t reply. He wrote to her again, asking if she’d received his attachment; he’d got a book for her, it was all for her, he loved her so much. She wrote back that he was very sweet. But she didn’t love the man, she loved the writer. You know, there was a difference. Unwin apologised. He didn’t email her again. He went back to work on the ‘Book of Job’.
And still he wrote, because he was a writer, wasn’t he, what else was he good for? But he began rather to hate the writer he had been, for whom it had all seemed so effortless, who had had so many ideas, and good ideas, why couldn’t he get ideas like that any more? And now he’d sit in front of a blank screen, and he’d struggle to fill it with words, with any words, without making them sound lumpen or gauche or passé, reading the words back as he imagined the critics would read them back, hearing their sneering judgment before he’d even finished the sentence, sneering right along beside them, “this is shit,” he’d say out loud as he typed, “this is shit, this is shit.” It was around this time that he started to drink.
And whilst he was drunk he might look back through his earlier books, the popular books, the ones he could no longer remember writing, he couldn’t remember being that young. He’d scribble in the margins. Against a paragraph in which he asserted that the world had been created in six days, he wrote, “What about the dinosaurs?” Next to the sequence about Noah’s ark, he scrawled, “Drown them all, drown every last one of the bastards.” He read and reread the story of the Tower of Babel, and how in man’s arrogance he had tried to climb to Heaven, and before that there’d been just one language and everyone could understand each other – and he wished that someone would understand him, for all his words no one ever seemed to understand a blind word he said.
His agent died. Some say he’d committed suicide, but surely not – and surely it was nothing to do with the fact he was found with a copy of Unwin’s latest manuscript on his bedside table with all the pills. The new agent was a young firebrand, and had capped teeth. He called Unwin into a meeting. “You’ve lost your way,” he said, plopping Unwin’s latest books on to the table, “no one cares about Habakkuk or Malachi, no one cares what shit those guys are into. You need to come up with a hero. Someone we can relate to. Someone we can all root for.” Unwin said he didn’t believe in heroes. “I advise you to try,” said his agent.
So Unwin set to work on a new novel. About a man who was just very, very nice. He went fishing, told his friends stories, did lovely bits of carpentry. Unwin pushed it further. He could walk on lakes, he turned water into wine. “Oh, he’s just too good to be true!” said Unwin, and crossed it all out – but then he started drinking again, and giggled, and put it all back in. He cast devils out of people, he brought back the dead, he turned the other cheek. Unwin was pissed out of his skull when he delivered the finished manuscript. The agent called him the next day. “It’s brilliant!” he said. “It’s genius! This is going to sell like hot cakes!” There was even a nice twist ending, apparently, something involving a cross and a resurrection, Unwin couldn’t even recall writing that part. “Do what you want with it,” said Unwin, “it’s sod all to do with me.” The one thing he insisted upon was that it retained its title. The agent wanted to call it, ‘Jesus Christ – Demon Slayer!’ Unwin called it the ‘Book of Matthew’, he named it after his pet dog.
“We need a sequel!” said the agent. It was only a few months later, and the phone call cut nastily through one of Unwin’s morning hangovers. “The world wants Jesus II!” “Can’t do it,” said Unwin, “I killed him off, remember?” “Oh, that won’t matter,” said the agent, “just write the same thing again, the readers’ll never notice.” And they didn’t. ‘Mark’ was even more successful than ‘Matthew’, and ‘Luke’ headlined both the Oprah Winfrey and the Richard and Judy book clubs. For the release of ‘John’ – dubbed ‘The Christ Chronicles IV – he’s back again, with all your favourite parables!’ – Unwin was on every chat show, he was flown to New York and to Chicago, he was guest host on ‘David Letterman’ and ‘Have I Got News For You’. He would take back eighteen year old girls to his hotel suites, and he’d do so without shame, and in each bedside drawer the hotel staff had thoughtfully placed a collection of his complete works; they called it the Gideon Bible, they named it after some minor character in his seventh book.
And then there were all the spin-offs – unauthorised, so Unwin didn’t get a penny. Concordances to the Bible, and dictionaries of the Bible, and comparative studies of the Old and New Testament – all these books telling people how to read his books, when the best answer, surely, would have been just to read his book in the first place, wasn’t it insane? And all the fan fiction on the internet – the further adventures of Jesus, or the crossover fic, in which Jesus teamed up with Muhammed and Buddha and Batman and together they’d fight crime and defeat monsters and convene synods, or the slashfic, in which Jesus copped off with Mary Magdalene and Lazarus and each and every one of his apostles. And secretly Unwin thought these stories were better than his, they had a bit more vigour to them. And then there was all the merchandise, the John the Baptist bendy toy, the Judas Iscariot horror mask, the crucifixes, all those crucifixes.
And sometimes he’d dream that all his stories were true. That he really did live in a world where there was something to live for, to fight for, to die for; that if you prayed at night there would be someone who’d listen; that there was meaning. The dreams would seem so real, he’d wake from them and he’d lie in bed and for moments – not for long, just moments, but so precious those moments – he’d believe that the world he’d seen in his head was the true one.
And sometimes he’d think that maybe all the stories were true. Each and every one of them. That all the events he catalogued had really happened, all of them, from the poisoned apple in the magical garden onwards. Not just fairy tales, but true history. Something real. Real, right up to the point when he wrote it down. Right up to the point when he turned it into novels. That when he put pen to paper, when he sent off the manuscripts to his agent, to his editor, to his publisher – that in that instant the very truths of the world became fiction. That he took the only meaning there was, the only meaning there could ever be – and in his hands it’d be transformed, he’d turn it all into gaudy adventure stories with giant whales and burning bushes and magic fingers writing curses on the wall, he’d trivialise it into a series of silly laws and commandments that could only ever be misconstrued, he’d reduce the ineffable oneness of the universe into a straight narrative with beginnings, middles and ends, when there could be no beginnings or ends, all of this was all there ever was or ever should be, and there could be no middles, how could the infinite have a middle?
Sometimes he’d realise that he was destroying God with his stories. That the stories only became stories when he made them so, and the world he wrote those stories for was so much duller and paler than the world he was erasing. And the more he tried to describe that world, the more he tried to preserve it on paper, even an essence of it, the quicker that erasure happened.
And sometimes he thought he was the God that he so often wrote about, and that God was an idiot.
He would read his first book. He’d think about Babel.
One night he broke into his publisher’s warehouse. And there he found his books, waiting to be shipped around the world, stacked up in crates, wrapped up in plastic. Leatherbound editions, hardbacks with colour pictures, children’s easy reading versions with the sex removed and the gore made more emphatic. So many words. So many trees.
He wondered if he should set fire to the lot of them.
And instead, without yet knowing why, he took one book, and set it down gently in the middle of the floor. He looked down at it. It seemed suddenly such a small thing, his life’s work, there on its own.
And he took another copy, and placed it carefully on top. And then a third. And then a fourth.
By the time he’d stacked twenty, he’d made himself a nice little tower. By the time he’d stacked a hundred, the tower was beginning to wobble. But it wouldn’t fall over, he mustn’t believe it could fall over, he had faith. And still he kept building.
He thought that if he stacked all the Bibles of the world on top of each other, neat and flush, it’d make the tallest tower in the world. He wondered if it would reach all the way up to Heaven. And, with that thought, he began to climb.