The novel is completed. He has posted the bulky typescript to his publisher - old-fashioned, he prefers this unnecessary gesture to the casual economy of e-mailing a PDF - and now he is free of the tormented inner voice telling him to reword, rejig, rewrite, rethink.
He knows it is not as good as his earlier books, which sometimes feel as though they were written by a near stranger, by a person he only half-remembers being. He has poured some of his confusion and disappointment into the novel's central character, along with other self-loathings: his treacherous body, his increasingly unreliable memory, the stream of women who - God knows why - want to sleep with an aging, still famous novelist, and to whose insistent demands he occasionally acquiesces. Against his better judgement, he has taken a side-swipe at his own activities in trying to slow the inevitability of climate change, cruelly satirizing the concerned group of like-minded writers who sometimes appear with him on late-night TV programs that few people watch. He wonders if anybody will recognize himself, but considers it improbable; he has moved around the cards thoroughly enough that no one will spot the lady.
He tries not to think about the book's many shortcomings. The passages which laziness and failing imagination have made him haphazardly borrow from his own and other people's writing: an episode from Enduring Love
, with the focus slightly changed and Milton replacing Keats; the polar bear theme from that Norwegian novel he read a few years ago; a whole scene from Douglas Adams. Even his timid editor reacted to that last one, and with bad grace he has inserted an explanatory passage that puts him in the clear. Oddly, the thing he feels most distressed about is the letter from his physicist friend, who has faithfully read every line and located a few errors. "Rest
mass, rather than resting
mass? And surely you mean Ricci tensor
rather than Ricci scalar
?" Ten minutes on Google show he's right, but it's too much trouble to call the publisher at this stage.
The worst part, he thinks as he pours himself another glass of Macallan, is that it's good enough. He has accumulated an army of loyal fans, and they won't desert him at this late hour. There is plenty of his trademark prose, even if he sometimes lapses into telling rather than showing for pages at a time. The opening is strong and will suck people in. He has cleverly rearranged the timeline to create the necessary dramatic tension, as the plot moves towards a climax as mechanical as that in the only explicit sex scene. It will attract a few positive reviews; who knows, some of them may even be sincere. Above all, he knows it's a page-turner.
But he still feels disgusted with his technical competence, and he has marked that in one of the more bitterly self-referential passages. He re-reads it, and feels an obscure satisfaction. Maybe a few other readers will also be amused for a moment.
He took the bag in both hands and pulled its neck apart, discharging a clammy fragrance of frying fat and vinegar. It was an artful laboratory simulation of the corner fish and chip shop, an enactment of fond memories and desire and nationhood. That flag was a considered choice. He lifted clear a single crisp between forefinger and thumb, replaced the bag on the table, and sat back. He was a man to take his pleasures seriously. The trick was to set the fragment on the centre of the tongue and, after a moment's spreading sensation, push the potato up hard to shatter against the roof of the mouth. His theory was that the rigid irregular surface caused tiny abrasions in the soft flesh into which salt and chemicals poured, creating a mild and distinct pleasure-pain...
The salty residue from the first round gave him the impression that he was bleeding from the gums. He slumped back in his seat, opened his mouth and repeated the experiment, although this time he kept his eyes open. Inevitably, the second crisp was less piquant, less surprising, less penetrating than the first, and it was this shortfall, this sensual disappointment, that prompted the need, familar to drug addicts, to increase the dose.
He pours a third glass.