Ordinary Things (Novel)

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An abducted child lives in a car on the roads of America. In Japan an old woman begs in a computer game arcade. In Mexico the lords of the underworld challenge the living to a deadly game. In Australia a tax agent drives from house to house counting assets.

From Kinshasa to Peru to Malaysia, across centuries, the lives of ordinary people collide with literature, history and myth. This is a novel about driving to work and Japanese poetry, slavery and telemarketing, war in the Congo, coin operated noodle bars, and crossroads.

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Reader Reactions

“ABSOLUTELY amazing book, I was gob-smacked, the Booker wouldn’t do it justice, get a copy and change yer freakin’ world.” -VM

“…what a fucking cracking piece of work…. What a strange and compelling piece of work.” -SB

“…a striking piece of experimental literary fiction…” -Anon

“Off the top of my head I can’t bring to mind a better text commentary on collective consciousness and the human condition. The structure is delicate and careful as the plum blossoms. I’ve never seen illustrations used as reference point like that.” -VM

“That was the most interesting and innovative book I’ve read in a very long time.” -VM

Excerpts

The following are short samples from throughout the novel.

***

When you are driving to work and arrive at an intersection, sometimes, if you come out of your daydream for a moment and notice what you’re doing, it can be difficult to turn in the same direction you did yesterday.
When your mother locked you in the cupboard while she entertained three soldiers and your father came home, he was afraid of what they would do to him but he got you out of the cupboard anyway. You don’t remember any of that but one day when you were older your father left the legal proceedings where you would find them as a way of telling you. Your mother always said what a liar your father was. Thinking about it, you figure he probably could convince a court. You asked him about that day:
“I was scared shitless. Here I was a civilian and most I’d seen were a few punch-ups. I was out of shape because I hadn’t played footy for years. No time for footy with work and looking after you. So here I was going up against these three cocksure soldiers and they’re all trained killers and full of themselves. I thought those fellas could kill me and no-one would ever know because those army blokes look after their own. I’d be swept under the carpet. But I couldn’t just leave you there, so I went in, and the way I got away with it, I said to them, ‘Now just wait a minute. I’m no match for you blokes. You might kill me but I swear one of you is going to lose an eye.’ They cracked a few jokes to save face but it must’ve worked. That’s one I walked away from.”
Since then you’ve seen that line about the eye in a movie and heard the same story told here and there, except the way that story’s usually told is with some gangsters trying to collect drug money. Even so, maybe he really did say that to the soldiers, just because he’d heard that story before. For all you know it might have been him who started that whole story in the first place. You’ve long since given up trying to figure out the truth. Too much trouble for nothing.
It must have got to her after a while, the joint custody, or she foresaw what your father had in mind, because one day without warning your mother took you to Proserpine.

***

People laugh because I’m naked. Next to my brother, I write the best glyphs this side of the mountains, turquoise, blood red, corn yellow, bone white and ash black. I play flute. I work jade, gold and silver. I climb trees and sleep on people’s patios. Let them laugh.
A long time ago we were tired of idle work. So we got up and played batey against our father and uncle. With a life of its own the ball bounced from foot to foot, brother to brother, two brothers against two brothers. We didn’t notice the owls until they were already perched on top of the stone walls. We stopped to look at them settling their feathers. One of them spoke.
“The Lords of Xibalba hear you stomping and shouting on their ceiling. They’ve noticed you’re skilful enough to challenge them. Gather your feathers and masks, your ball and yokes. The Lords of Xibalba challenge you to play against them.” Our father and uncle could not refuse.

Grandma’s tears made small dark spots in the clay floor of our house. Our uncle was gathering the batey gear. By that time we had no mother for them to say goodbye to. “Don’t worry,” our father said. “We’ll come back. We’ll put our ball up here in the rafters. I promise we’ll play with it again one day.”
“You’ll never come back,” Grandma said.
“While we’re gone, Batz and Chouen will play their flutes for you. They’ll keep you warm with their singing and writing.”
They followed the owls away down the track that goes past our fields and into the forest. We followed them as far as the gorge. It’s steep there and the path winds back and forth. We watched them follow the owls down until they disappeared in the shadows of the forest.
We went back home to Grandma. My brother played flute while I remembered what happened in turquoise, blood red, corn yellow, bone white and ash black.

***

Sleepless, the King rose from his bed.
Memory, he said, Listen. Kongo is not Kongo.
Look at this carving. Songye. In this wood the sculptor found power. Look at these languid eyes, this serene face. Power has a smooth forehead. The soul in this wood will be here long after my head is white and smooth. It lives as long as you do.
I can see 30 days in all directions. I have a hundred thousand hands. A hundred thousand hands give to me. I give to a hundred thousand hands. I meet my enemy holding a hundred thousand spears. When a stranger sees my skull, will my grandchildren’s grandchildren know what to tell them? Memory, I’ll tell you something worth the time.

***

“What do I know?” You ask yourself. You drive to work every day. You go to the supermarket to get groceries – asparagus from Peru, pineapples from Queensland, frozen Vietnamese Hoki fillets in Idaho potato crumbs, cooked in Malaysian palm oil, and drive home again. Some days you go via Chichen Itza, sometimes via Baghdad, or Osaka. Sometimes via some thing you should have said or done, or some future you long for. Sometimes remembering conversations with the dead, resurrected from pages on the shelves.
It is a sad old cliche, to be driven to despair by this old routine, of work to pay off a mortgage, while you wish there was more to life. You wish you had some idea to get rich, or maybe pack it in and do something, anything, but even if you did have some great idea, you don’t know the secret handshakes to get it up and running without some corporation capturing the market while you’re still scratching your head. You’ll always be a negligible pip somewhere on the vast scale from rich to poor, vastly richer than the world’s poor, vastly poorer than the world’s rich, and you could work all your life noon and night, and only shift a pixel. You remind yourself you should count yourself lucky you even have a job, a roof over your children’s heads and food in their bellies.

***

What do I know? Every day before dawn, I light my lantern. I take my .44, my tapping knife, machete, tigelinhas and set out on the circuit. I cut over my marks in the tree and it weeps into my cup. Back to the beginning, a cup of coffee, and around again, collecting the tigelinhas of milk in a pail. In the afternoon, dribbling the caoutchouc on the spit over the funnel of massaranduba and urucury nut smoke. Choking and coughing and a swig of Cachaça. Another pela for the stockpile. Formiga, we are the same, doing our rounds, but there’s no need for you to choke.

***

He didn’t speak much about the war. Late one night sitting by the kerosene burner in his dressing gown with a cup of tea, he said he watched his friend get shot off a bridge and fall into the river. He wasn’t killed instantly by the shot. He was shot and drowning to death at the same time. Dying two deaths. One morning at the dining table he gave you a juicy fruit lolly and said, one night, he and the other commandos were way out in the middle of the jungle, in the mountains, far from anywhere. At night they could hear bicycles. Bicycles in the middle of the jungle, in the mountains, with no roads anywhere. They thought they were going mad. “Can you hear that? Is that bicycles? Can you hear bicycles?” It took them a while to figure out the Japs had dug tunnels and were riding bikes around inside the mountains. There were 300 of them against 3000 Japanese and their job was to make the Japs believe there were more. He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. Though they had some help from the locals. Your father passed on that part after your grandfather died, “The Japs reputation was for being cruel. We were fair but our reputation was that our punishments were worse. Like the Japanese might torture you to get information, but we would just ask and if we found out you’d betrayed us you’d be shot. Which would you prefer? What they couldn’t get over though, was how the locals used to play soccer with heads. Sometimes they sent just two or three men on a mission and you’d walk into a village and they’d be kicking around their enemies’ heads. Mostly other locals, but sometimes Japs, and sometimes us too, because some of them worked for the Japs. They were such lovely people otherwise, except they’d kick people’s heads around.

***

The little yellow dot shrivelled up and the machine beeped. The boy turned to the old woman looking over his shoulder, not sure what someone a hundred years old was doing in a video arcade. He figured she must be mad, but politely answered her questions.
“What is this yellow dot?”
“It’s Pacman.”
“Is that all it does? Eat?”
“Yes, but you also have to get away from the ghosts.”
“What if the ghost catches you?”
“You die but you get 3 lives. If you eat a big dot then you can eat the ghosts.”
“What if it eats all the dots?”
“You go to the next level, it’s the same but the ghosts are faster.”
“So it’s always hungry?”
“Yes.”
“Ahhh.” She held out her bowl. He rolled his eyes and put a coin in.

***

He toed the ground and watched little black spiders scurry through the thick weave of dry grassy leaves the reed stalks had shed. It was a dry, brittle world. He picked up a spiked husk and scrutinized the nutshell inside. It was hollow with a small wormhole on the side, the worm long gone. He picked up another the same. He knew they’d each be empty, each with their own wormhole. At this season he’d seen them all that way every year, his whole life.
There was no fresh water. All the small ponds on the way up were green and stagnant and no streams flowed but he went on. He could bear a little thirst till he returned home. He followed a small track up the hill for no reason other than to be away from below. There was no trace of anybody on the barely suggested path, only a few wild pig and deer prints. He stepped over, around and through broken old branches on the brown pine needles until, away from the path, lying on its side, was the glass bottle. Tired of walking he went over and sat by it, leaning against a tree.
It was an old bottle and time had half buried it, half filling it with soil. Whoever had been up there, hunting or collecting firewood, drunk from their bottle and forgotten it, it must have been a long time ago. He idly crushed a green pine needle and smelled it.
Inside the bottle was another world. Moss and other plants grew like tiny trees, green slime and mold grew like grass. There were miniature hills and valleys in the accumulated soil. Moisture condensed on the ceiling like mist and clouds.

In the middle of it all, a caterpillar had made its way through the narrow opening at the neck of the bottle, now almost sealed with soil, and formed a glossy black pupa. When it hatched there would be nowhere for it to go. Its wings would be too large for it to escape through the bottle’s neck. It would awaken, beat its wings against the glass and live and die sealed inside the ancient bottle.

***

“When they first came south they thought the moon shone with heat instead of cold.”
Reflected sunlight rippled on the ceiling. Listening to the water, they fell silent. There was a distant sound of steady thumping. She could hear across days and months and years, the steady thumping of a mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle of her mother making food. The sound must have only been the beating of carpets outside, or maybe the beating of her own blood, resonating in her dream. The memory of something so far away she had forgotten it for years. There was a town where the streets were paved with skulls. There was the King standing before them, once blue, now red, a hundred spears behind him, with people around him, without ears, noses, lips. There was the sound of the gun, ‘tipputip’. That was all. She was only a small child then.
The water from the pitcher ran over her shoulder. “They say they never bathe, the people are filthy and starving, their towns full of smoke, and the streets with filth.”
She stepped out of the bath taking the silks from her hand. “My father provides for us all, for his wives, his sons and daughters, and for his slaves as if they were his own sons and daughters. And for all their sons and daughters. What’s wrong with that?”
She took the gold anklets from her hand and put them on her ankle. “Isn’t a slave trained in trades? And if a slave is good, don’t we send him to Oman? When he returns, isn’t he valued more than any other?”
She took the gold bracelets from her hand and put them on her arms. “My father gave me this gold, but do you think it’s mine? No. The harvest isn’t always good. The trade isn’t always good. But my father is wise. When trade is rich, he gives us things we enjoy but which never perish. When trade is poor, we gladly give our gifts back to him and he sells them for our needs. Has this household ever been hungry? This gold is yours as well as mine, yet it belongs to none of us. We might all eat this gold one day.”
She placed a drop of musk in her hair. “They say there must be no more slaves, but who will feed you? Where will you sleep? Who will harvest the cloves? How can we sell cloves to feed the slaves, if no one is left to harvest the cloves?”
She placed a drop of rosewater in her hair. “In that country it’s so cold they say for half the year the rivers turn to stone.”
She placed a drop of amber in her hair. “They said the Southern moon shines with heat. It’s the Northern sun that shines with cold.”
She took the chain of coins from her hand and put them over her head. “Bismillah.”

***

Once, driving around Sydney, you heard on the radio that somewhere in Africa, the police receive constant complaints about the theft of penises. They investigate these complaints and sometimes the penis is recovered. In other news a soccer team refused to play because they were certain the other side had used witchcraft to curse them. Funnily enough, two weeks later the next story you heard from Africa was that lightning had struck during a game of soccer, killing one team while leaving the other unscathed. That was all the news from Africa – there was no high profile famine at that time, though sometimes Somali pirates cropped up.
You don’t hear it on the radio, or see it on the television, or on the internet news, or read in the paper, the 5 million people dead in the war in the Congo. That’s the population of Sydney.
Just think of Sydney as you drive through it, from its edge to its centre, every single one of those people in the cars driving past, every single man, woman and child in every single one of those houses you pass by, block upon block from Bondi to the Blue mountains, all of them dying one by one over 10 years.

***

After three months work washing clothes at an orphanage near Hiroshima, Chiyo returned to visit Kentaro. Taking her seat on the train she found a book someone long gone had lost. It was Soseki’s Ten Nights Of Dream and as the train travelled, she read about a man who went to see the 13th century master wood carver Unkei at work carving guardian gods at Gokoku temple. He remarked to a bystander how amazing it was that with a few unceremonious strokes of mallet and chisel, Unkei could create a perfect nose and eyebrow from a formless piece of wood. The bystander explained that he was not creating the god from shapeless wood, but was excavating the form of the god already hidden in the wood. With this insight the man went home and tried to carve his own guardian gods from logs of firewood in his backyard. After working through the whole pile he still could not find the god in the wood of today and finally understood why the ancient Unkei was still alive.
Once home, Chiyo tore a strip from one of Kinmitu’s electronics periodicals and bookmarked this story with it. When she left for the orphanage again she left the book on Kentaro’s pillow.

***

I remembered the girls I knew when I was young. I remembered what I learned from watching the doctor in my village. That was how I started making love potions and other things for people in this town. María always said, ‘Don’t do that. Pray to the Holy Virgin.’ So I said, ‘You don’t want me to make money so I can never pay you back.’ So I made my money.
“If someone came and said, ‘I don’t believe it. This is fake medicine,’ I killed a chicken and brought it back to life again. Over the years everyone in town took my medicine. I knew all their business. They are all guilty. That’s why all their fingers point at me. The Inquisitors would take them all if they knew what I knew.”

***

The night was cold so you went into a book store. The bottom floor was the biggest book store you’d ever seen, all in a language you couldn’t read. You went up the escalators and there was another level of illegible books as large as the lower one. You went up again. You went up another level and another. Here was an unending expanse of information, the thoughts of countless people, on every subject, from all over the world, from every period of history. You had lost count of the levels and there were still more. All in a language you didn’t know. You were suddenly illiterate. Why did you bother? You took the opportunity to use the bookstore toilet and left.
At the end of the day, all you had to do to be able to live with yourself is not die.

***

With no one to hinder her whims, no friends to warn or reproach her, she sits as long as she likes and stands only when the whispering leaves move her and looks for a place to sleep and a water source. She follows a faint path etched through dead pine needles, the only tracks on it her own and the small hooves of deer. Among the pines she finds a glass bottle sunk into the ground with time. She lifts it out of the soil so she can fill it with water if she finds any, and sees inside, among the dirt and moss, a slick black pupa.

***

…but it’s too late, they are everywhere, I missed the opportunity, but these thoughts can’t be eaten, I’m so hungry, eating only keeps hunger alive, these words can’t come out of my mouth, every breath could have a word on it, a word that started something, or ended it, a word that changed everything, a single breath and the right word can change the world, and when we have nothing left, not even food, that is all we have left, one breath, but what is the right word, what are we doing, finding food, and when you have eaten, sleep, and hunger again the next day, look at this man, raving and stinking of shit and garbage and putrid flesh, saying anything that anyone thinks is better left unsaid, some people pretend to be mad to get away with things, to steal a little food, to be left alone by the police, it’s the only thing a sane man can do to save himself in this world, so many people here, so many, each with their own secret cares, each wanting what they want, each with so many million memories, as many as my own right now, but all different, and each could be snuffed out in just a moment, just like that, a machete in the back of the neck, a bullet from anywhere, there could be someone aiming at me right now, some men coming up the next street with their machetes, you get used to that, when you have to sleep you have to sleep even knowing you might never wake up, look at this man, talking on a mobile phone, like a rich person…

***

In the beginning is the stories’ root. From it grow many fruits. Too many to tell.
In the tree in Xibalba flesh half forms on our father’s skull again until half his face is restored. “Your name will be remembered,” Xbalanque and Hunahpu say to it. “Hunahpu Seven, people will call upon you.”
Grandmother is in her kitchen weeping. The cornstalk grows green again.
Our father replies, “Hunahpu and Xbalanque, your story will be told again and again. In these words the dead live…

***

The smell of fresh tar and the sunscreen leaking in the glove box, the rattle of the dried mandarin, oyster shell, matches and blown fuses in the ashtray, a torn corner of the pink child seat in the crooked rear vision mirror.