Harry Radcliffe, a design genius, finds himself in the middle of something wonderful when the Sultana of Saru hires him to build an architectural wonder that begins to reflect the wonder of the human spirit. Reprint.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Jonathan Carroll's novel The Wooden Sea was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2001. He is the author of such acclaimed novels as White Apples, The Land of Laughs, The Marriage of Sticks, and Bones of the Moon. He lives in Vienna, Austria.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
OUTSIDE THE DOG MUSEUM
part one "present tense" I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. --MONTAIGNE I'D JUST BITTEN THE hand that fed me when God called, again. Shaking her left hand, Claire picked up the receiver with her right. After asking who it was, she held it out to me, rolling her eyes. "It's God again." Her little joke. The Sultan's name was Mohammed, and he was more or less God to the million and a half citizens of the Republic of Saru, somewhere in the Persian Gulf. "Hello, Harry?" "Hello, sir. The answer is still no." "Have you seen the Mercedes-Benz building on Sunset Boulevard? This is a building I like very much." "Sure, Joe Fontanilla designed it. He's with the Nadel Partnership. Call him up." " He was not in Time magazine." "Your Highness, the only reason you want me to work for you is because I was on the cover of that magazine. I don't think that's the best reason for choosing someone to do a billion-dollar project." "'It was announced last week that American Harry Radcliffe was awarded this year's Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.'" "You're reading from the article again." "I also liked the coffeepot you designed. Come over to my hotel, Harry, and I'll give you a car." "You already gave me a car last week, sir. I can only drive one at a time. Anyway, the answer would still be no. I don't design museums." "Your friend Fanny Neville is here." My other friend, Claire Stansfield, stood with her long, naked back to me, looking out her glass doors down onto Los Angeles, way below. Claire here, Fanny at the Sultan's. The salt and pepper on my life those days. "How did that happen?" I tried to keep the word "that" noncommittal so Claire wouldn't get suspicious. "I asked your friend Fanny if she would like to do an interview with me." Fanny Neville likes two things: power and imagination. She prefers both, but will take one if the other's unavailable. I was the imagination in her life those days. We'd met in New York a couple of years before when she interviewed me for Art in America. I give good interviews, or did before I went off my rocker and had to drop out of life for a while. I was back in it now, but wasn't doing much besides commuting between these two impressive women, who both said it was time I got off my ass and did something. "Could I talk to him?" "Him? You mean Fanny? With pleasure." There was a pause and then she came on the line. "Hello. Are you at Claire's?" "Yes." "That always makes me feel cozy. Do you talk to her in this same voice when you call from my house?" "Yes." "You're an asshole, Harry. How come you didn't tell me the Sultan wants you to build his museum?" "Because I already said I wouldn't." "But you took the car he gave you?" "Sure, why not? It was a gift." "A forty-thousand-dollar gift?" "He just offered me another." "I heard." She "hmph'd" like a disgruntled old woman. "Are you coming to my house for dinner?" "Yes." Claire turned around, the sunshine from behind lighting her outline so brightly that I could barely make out her nakedness. Walking toward me, she did something with her foot, and the telephone line went dead. It took a moment to realize she'd pulled out the cord. "Talk to her on your own fucking time, Harry."
BEFORE GOING OVER TO visit Fanny and the Sultan, I drove to my favorite car wash in West Hollywood. It's run by a bunch of fags who do everything beautifully and with style. I've done some of my best thinking in car washes. Those few minutes under the mad flood and yellow brushes do things to some outlying but valuable part of my brain so that I usually emerge from those false storms wired and full of ideas. Are you familiar with the Andromeda Center in Birmingham, England? The one that brought me so much notoriety a decade ago? Born in a car wash. I remember "fixing" on the swishing arc of the windshield wiper blades on my car and, just before the hoses stopped, having the first inspiration for those juxtaposed arcs that are the heart of that justly famous building. Sitting in the Hollywood car wash, watching my new Lotus get spritzed from all sides, I was a famous man with nothing to do. I was twice divorced; once even from an anorectic fashion victim whose sole creative act in life was to spell her name with two d's. Anddrea. She liked to fuck in the morning and complain the rest of the day. We were married too long and then she left me for a much nicer man. I am not a nice man. I expect others to be nice to me, but feel nocompulsion to return the favor. Luckily enough, important people have called me a genius throughout my adult life so that I've been able to get away with an inordinate amount of rudeness, indifference, and plain bad manners. If you're ever given one wish, wish the world thinks you're a genius. Geniuses are allowed to do anything. Picasso was a big prick, Beethoven never emptied his chamber pot, and Frank Lloyd Wright stole as much money from his clients and sponsors as any good thief. But it was all okay finally because they were "geniuses." Maybe they were, and I am too, but I'll tell you something: Genius is a boat that sails itself. All you have to do is get in and it does the rest, i.e., I didn't spend months and years thinking up the shapes and forms of my most renowned buildings. They came out of nowhere and my only job was to funnel them onto pieces of paper. I'm not being modest. The ideas come like breezes through a window and all you do is capture them. Braque said this: "One's style--it is in a way one's inability to do otherwise ... . Your physical constitution practically determines the shape of the brushmarks." He was right. Bullshit on all that artistic suffering, "agonizing" over the empty page, canvas ... . Anyone who agonizes over their work isn't a genius. Anyone who agonizes for a living is an idiot. Halfway through the second rinse (my favorite part came next--the dry off, when curtains of brown rags descended and slid sensuously across every surface of the car), everything stopped. My beautiful new blue Lotus (compliments of the Sultan) sat there dripping water, going nowhere. Checking the rearview mirror, I saw the car behind me was stopped too. The driver and I made eye contact. He shrugged. Trapped in a gay car wash! A few moments twiddling my fingers on the steering wheel, then I watched a couple of workers run by close on the right and out the other end. Another glance in the rearview mirror, the guy behind shrugging again. I got out of the car and, looking toward the exit,saw some kind of large commotion going on up there. I walked toward it. "What kinda car is dat?" "Fuck the car, Leslie, the guy's dead!" A brown car (I remember thinking it was the same color as the drying rags) sat a few feet from the exit. Four or five people stood around, looking inside. The driver's door was open and the manager of the place was hunched down next to it. He looked at me and asked if I was a doctor--the guy inside had had a heart attack or something, and was dead. Immediately I said yes because I wanted to see. Going over, I knelt down next to the manager. Despite having just been cleaned, the car still smelled of loaded ashtrays and wet old things. A middle-aged man sat slumped over the steering wheel. Remembering my television shows, I made like a doctor and put a hand on his throat to feel for a pulse. Nothing there under jowls and whiskery skin. "He's gone. Did you call an ambulance?" The manager nodded and we stood up together. "How do you think it happened, Doctor?" "Heart attack, probably. But best to let the ambulance men figure it out." "What a way to go, huh? Okay, Leslie and Kareem, give me a hand pushing this car out of here so we can let the rest of these people through. Thanks, Doctor. Sorry to inconvenience you." "No problem." I turned to go back to my car. "How embarrassing." "Excuse me?" I looked at him. "I mean I run this place and all, right? But I was thinking how humiliating it'd be to know that you'd die in a car wash--especially if you were famous! Imagine how your obituary would read: 'Graham Gibson, renowned actor, was found dead in The Eiffel Towel Car Wash, Thursday, after having apparently suffered a massive heart attack.'" He looked at me and grimaced. "Washed to death!" "I know what you mean." An enormous understatement. Some people fantasize their names on magazine covers, others on bronze plaques mounted on the sides of buildings. I did too, until some of those things happened to me. Then I started imagining what my obituary would say. I once read that the man who did the obituaries for the New York Times wrote them before people died (if they were well-known) and only polished them with final details after the person croaked. That was understandable and I could see the logic to it, but the "polish" part was disturbing. Okay, you live a long and illustrious life, full of genuine accomplishments and praise. But then what happens? You finish, looking like a big dope if you're unfortunate enough to die choking on a bottle cap, or a tree branch hits you on the head and puts you down for the count. Tennessee Williams with the bottle cap, Odon Von Horvath with the tree. I know nothing about Odon except he was a writer and that's how he died--hit on the head by a branch while walking down a street in Paris. I could too easily imagine someone saying, "I know nothing about Harry Radcliffe except he was an architect who died of a heart attack in a car wash." The Eiffel Towel Car Wash, no less. Walking back to the car, I reminded myself of the fact that I hadn't been doing anything with my days recently, so if it had been me keeled over in that brown car, my whole life would have looked pretty pointless. "What happened up there?" The man in the car behind mine was out and standing now. "A guy had a heart attack and died." "Here?" He shook his head and smiled. I knew what he was thinking and it made me even more depressed: It was funny. People would grin if you said you were at the car wash today and someone died while on his final rinse. They'd smile the same way as this man, and thenthere'd be one of those half-funny, half-fearful discussions at the dinner table about good and bad ways of dying. Venasque used to say down deep we all know we're kind of silly and thus spend too much of our lives either trying to cover it up or disprove it--mostly to ourselves. "But then when it comes to dying," he would say, "you know you might end up looking more ridiculous than ever. Even though you're dead and won't be around to see people's reactions, you're still afraid to look bad. Why do you think people like expensive coffins and funerals so much? So we can try being impressive, right into the ground."
FIVE MINUTES LATER, PULLING up at a stoplight on Sunset Boulevard, I looked to my left, and who was sitting in the car next to mine? Markus Hebenstreit! Architecture critic for the L.A. Eye, Hebenstreit was my most vicious and long-standing enemy/critic. He'd probably written more bad things about my work than anyone else. The more famous I became, the more Hebenstreit frothed and spread his verbal rabies wherever he could. "Markus!" He turned slowly and looked at me with great Hoch Deutsch disdain. When I registered on him, his contempt turned into beady-eyed hatred. "Hello, Radcliffe. Coming back from your weekly shock treatment?" "A new billion-dollar project, Markus! Man wants me to build him a billion-dollar museum. Do it however I want, just so long as it's an original Harry Radcliffe. "Just think, Markus, no matter what you write, there'll always be someone who wants me to build them billion-dollar buildings! "So suck on that a while, you Nazi fuck!" Before he could say anything, I slapped the Lotus into gear and peeled out, feeling gloriously like an eighteen-year-old.
RUMOR HAD IT THE Sultan of Saru owned the Westwood Muse Hotel, which explained why he and his entourage invariably stayed there when they came to Los Angeles five or six times a year. It was designed and built in the 1930s by a student of Peter Behrens and looked sort of like the jazzy factories Behrens designed for AEG in Germany. I liked the place because it was quirky, but couldn't understand why the Sultan would buy it when he could have so easily afforded any real estate within a ten-mile radius of the Beverly Hills Hotel. When I pulled up in front, an extremely tall black woman dressed in a dove-gray shirt and slacks stepped forward and opened my door. As usual, I looked up at her in pure appreciation. She was exquisite. "Hello, Lucia." "Hello, Harry. Has he invited you again?" "Summoned." She nodded and took my place in the car. The two complemented each other perfectly; the machine should have been hers on the basis of looks and stature alone. But it wasn't. Lucia was only another beautiful failure in California, parking cars. "He still wants you to build his museum?" "Yup." "And you don't want to do it?" Her long brown hands sat lightly on the steering wheel. She smiled up at me and that smile was a killer. I thought about answering her, but asked instead, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Not sure whether I was being serious or not, she cocked her head to one side and said, "'When I grow up'? An actress. Why?" "You'd like that carved on your tombstone? 'Lucia Armstrong, actress'?" "That would make me very happy. What about you, Harry? What do you want written, 'Harry Radcliffe, celebrated architect'?" "Naah, that's too banal. Maybe 'The Man Who Built the Dog Museum.'" Said like that, the idea suddenly tickled the hell out of me. Walking up the gravel path, I turned to say something else to Lucia but she was already pulling away. I shouted to the back of my blue car, "That'd be a damned good epitaph!" Was it because of the dead man in the car wash? Being able to throw the power of "a billion dollars" in Hebenstreit's face? Or simply envisioning (and liking) the words "The Man Who Built the Dog Museum" on my gravestone that did it? Whatever the reason, walking in the front door of the Westwood Muse Hotel, I knew I would design the Sultan's museum for him, although I had been saying no for months. What I had to do next was get him to think he was not just lucky, but blessed to have me and, consequently, fork over the money I'd need both for myself and the project. A lot more money than even he'd imagined.
WHAT ARE YOUR EARLIEST memories?" Was the first question Fanny Neville asked me, the day we met and did our interview years before. I hadn't even had the chance to sit back down after letting her in. Without thinking, I said, "Seeing Sputnik and Rocket Monroe at the Luxor Baths in New York." "How old were you?" "Three, I think." "Who were Sputnik and Rocket Monroe?" &q...
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