Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
Time Flies When You’re Having Fun
Today was a special day for a whole bunch of reasons. Linda called me this afternoon to tell me that Lockdown in Amsterdam now boasts 40,000 subscribers. Forty-thousand! Let’s see now… at a buck-fifty per installment and six installments so far, ka-ching ka-ching: that’s three-hundred-and-sixty-thousand bucks right there!
Wow. This pandemic is turning into a real gold mine for me. And a lot of you folks have voluntarily been donating more, out of the sheer goodness of your hearts. Ka-ching! And a few of you a whole lot more. Ka-CHING!
Now remember: 40,000 is just the number of official subscribers. Some of you will have been sharing my novel with other members of your household. Add to that all the sneaky devils who have been downloading these installments illegally. These “aysmptomatic” subscribers are equally capable of spreading the word amongst their friends and relatives.
In short, Lockdown in Amsterdam has become a super-spreading event!
Oh, and if you happen to be one of those cheapskates enjoying the fruits of my creative efforts without paying a cent for them: no hard feelings! We can’t all be patrons of the arts. You were a calculated risk that my publisher and I were willing to take when we decided to release this novel in online installments. As long as there are enough other people out there who do have a conscience, by all means be our guest and read on!
To celebrate the new milestone, I treated Full o’ Bull and his wife to a bottle of champagne. Now before you accuse me of being insensitive or even cruel to be waving yet another scintillating success of mine in the face of a far less fortunate colleague, it so happens that Full o’ Bull had some good news of his own to share with us today: he has gone back to work on his essays, thus overcoming his writer’s block.
“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed, topping up his glass with more champagne once the fizz had settled. “I’m so happy for you!”
“Let’s not overdo it, shall we?”
“But I’m serious! Mathematically as well as psychologically, the step from zero to one is far more spectacular than from 39,999 to 40,000.”
His wife stepped in before things could turn sour, asking him which particular essay he had been working on today.
“All of them, actually,” he said, flashing a dark look at her for putting him on the spot. He doesn’t like to discuss his writing in my presence, no doubt because of my bad habit of turning everything into a joke. But with the new house rules stipulating that he was to ignore my provocations from now on, he had no other choice than to tell us both about his workday.
I swear, as the three of us stood there in the living room, sipping champagne as though at a pre-pandemic cocktail party, I found out more about his current project than during my entire stay thus far.
He hadn’t done much actual writing, he confessed, spending most of the day “corona-testing” his material, by which he meant that whenever something major happens halfway through your writing project, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9-11, or in this case the covid-19 pandemic, even when you choose not to mention it explicitly, you will have to check whether your subject matter hasn’t suddenly become dated, or irrelevant, or even incorrect.
What he was saying made a lot of sense. When he’s not too busy being angry with me, Full o’Bull can be a pretty smart guy.
Happily, the damage seemed manageable. One or two topics would need to be approached from a somewhat different angle, and it wouldn’t hurt to mention the pandemic in the preface, but the central theme of his essay collection was as relevant as ever, maybe even more so.
“That theme being…” I asked ever so delicately, knowing how easily Full o’ Bull clams up when pressed for details. But the Moët&Chandon Brut Impérial was making him bubblier than his usual self. Behind his modest pose I sensed an eagerness to tell me more.Shy people kill me.They are just as vain as the rest of us, in fact, maybe even more so, because they get an extra kick out of having us pull their vanity out of them bit by bit.
Human intelligence. That appeared to be the leitmotif of Full o’Bull’s envisioned essay collection. Intelligence in its various facets. Was it a blessing or a curse? Would it help us through our current crises, or did it lie at the root of those very same crises and was it instrumental to our undoing?
“Cool!” I said. “That’s just the sort of stuff I was noodling around with in Revenge of the Optimists.”
“Oh, of course,” he said, exchanging an all too familiar smile with his wife, a smile I’ve seen countless times before on this side of the Atlantic.
I have come to call it “eurogant”, being the smile Europeans share with each other whenever some dumb American butts in on their conversation and says something that strikes them as crass or boastful. Think of Full o’ Bull and his wife as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel and think of me as Donald Trump, and you get the picture. And they’ll assume we’re too thick-skinned to notice what’s going on. Well, ha! Not this time.
Need I mention the aphorism from the Optimist Manifesto that you may remember from the previous installment: “Man has become too smart for his own good. Man must learn to dumb himself down”? Maybe I’m just a dumb American, but it would appear as though human intelligence might indeed be the subject under consideration.
Oh, well. Never mind. I let the two old lovebirds bask in their moment of eurogance together, hoping it would soften Full o’ Bull up sufficiently for him to divulge what I had been trying to extract from him on various occasions in the past: the title of his essay collection. Was he willing to tell me now?
“Oh, come on,” I encouraged him, pouring the last little bit of truth elixir into his glass. “Let’s make this a title reveal party!”
“It’s only a working title,” he cautioned me. “So I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself for now. Although knowing you, you’ll regard this request as an invitation to do just the opposite.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” I grinned, appreciating his attempt at reverse psychology.
Like I said, shy people kill me. With a tremor in his voice and with his eyes darting back and forth between his dear wife and his not-so-dear guest, Full o’ Bull announced the seven monosyllables that he had chosen to grace the cover of his new book, along with a question mark.
“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding importantly as I swilled the title around in my mind as though to taste each word in turn. “That could work.”
Then again, it might not. It’s hard to tell with titles. Not wanting to spoil the party, I raised my glass.
“Cheers, Full o’Bull. Here’s to ‘How smart is it to be smart?’!”
Oops. Did I just give it away? Oh, well. You guys know me by now.
“And here’s to ‘Lockdown in Amsterdam’!” said Full o’ Bull, raising his glass.
We also drank to the three projects Full o’ Bull’s wife has been working on. I would love to tell you more about them, except that Full o’ Bull has threatened to evict me if I disclose too much information pertaining to the other members of his household. New house rules, remember?
So instead, let me raise my glass once more and drink to all forty-thousand of you wonderful people who have subscribed to this online novel! Thank you so much for your generosity!
And what the heck: here’s to you too, all you freeloaders out there. Thank you so much for your time!
Now that everyone has gathered round: Linda, who goes through all my fan mail, was telling me that a lot of you guys are eager to know when I’m coming home. Surely travel restrictions have been lifted sufficiently by now for me to fly back to New York!
I love you too, folks, but please, could you keep your voices down? We don’t want Full o’ Bull and his wife to have second thoughts about letting me stay with them for longer.
But listen up. Here’s the story. Strictly speaking, it was only during the first week or two, when all flights back to New York were booked solid, that I was truly stranded here in Amsterdam.
Then came Trump’s thirty-day travel ban, but remember: the ban only applied to European citizens wishing to visit the US, not to US residents returning home. Sure, a lot of flights from Amsterdam to New York were cancelled, but with so many people having to give up their tickets, there were plenty of available seats on the few planes that did fly. In others words, even way back then, I could have come home.
At the same time, however, New York City was well on its way to becoming the new epicenter of the pandemic. Though technically possible, it would have been sheer madness to return home in that period. In other words, it was no longer a problem of logistics, but for humanitarian reasons that Full o’Bull and his wife were now letting me stay.
Since then, as you may know, my home state has done a terrific job flattening its curve, shaking off its reputation as problem child to become the best-behaved pupil of the class. If ever there was a good moment for me to come home, surely it would be now. You never know when a second wave might hit and throw all the good work back into disarray.
Full o’Bull and his family aren’t stupid. They know just as well as you or me that it’s safe enough now for me to return home. So why don’t they just let me go, especially considering that I’m such a pain in the neck? Why on earth did they vote for me to stay?
That’s what I need to figure out. That’s why I can’t come home just yet. Not because it’s technically impossible, or medically irresponsible, but because the plot of this novel no longer allows it. We have passed a point of no return, as it were.
How much longer will I be staying? God knows. Days, weeks, months? How about years?! Okay, let’s not overdo it. If not to the last syllable of recorded time, then quite possibly to the last syllable of this novel, or at least until I’ve figured out what the story is behind Full o’ Bull’s continuing hospitality.
So much for the future. Linda was telling me that a fair number of you were also wondering about the present in “Lockdown”. Was it safe to assume that my story was developing more or less in sync with real time, or was it lagging behind? How long had I been staying with Full o’Bull and his family? Eleven weeks? Seventeen? Or was it closer to half a year?
Linda had taken it upon herself to read everything through from the beginning to check for so-called time markers. Uh-oh. Those are the little clues that creative writing instructors are always telling their students to sprinkle through their narratives to prevent the reader from losing track of the time, becoming disorientated and ultimately losing interest.
Here is what Linda found:
There was my arrival in Amsterdam on the day of the Booga Ball, that annual fancy dress party with which the Dutch literary elite celebrates its own excellence. With the help of Google, readers can trace this year’s ball to March 7.
Elsewhere, I write that the days of my stay have become weeks, and that the weeks have become months. Months plural. Ruling out hyperbole, that would take the reader at least into May, an assumption corroborated by my reference to Donald Trump promoting disinfectant as a cure for Covid-19, which he did at a press conference on April 22. In the same installment, I apparently write that several weeks have passed since then. Did I write that? I must have. Linda is the best close reader I know.
And finally, I announce that I will be voting for Trump again in the upcoming election, implying that it isn’t November 3 yet.
That’s about it. With no further dates, no budding branches, sweltering summer evenings or sudden chills in the air, our story could be anywhere between May and November. Not that Linda wanted to tell me how to write my novel – heaven forbid – but would I consider narrowing it down a tad, just to keep my readers happy? She’s a sweetheart, Linda. She really is.
What I explained to her this afternoon, and will now try to explain to you, my dear readers, is that the absence of time markers in this novel is not a careless oversight on my part, but a deliberate choice.
With life before the pandemic a distant dream and a vaccine as yet beyond the horizon, we are trapped, locked down in an eternal here and now. The virus has infected time itself, robbing it of its fluidity and leaving it thicker and goopier than molasses. April, July, October? Budding branches, rose blossoms, falling leaves? What difference do they make? We’re still stuck.
As long as we can’t get out of this Covid-19 bubble, the best we can do is to forget about time altogether and create space, space in which to have fun! That’s what Lockdown in Amsterdam is all about, folks. With apologies to the eighteenth-century opium junkie Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his poem Kubla Khan (for the real deal check out https://youtu.be/q1FLAl427Y0):
In Amsterdam did Toby Quinn
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Step right up, folks. Welcome to my pleasure-dome! Day tickets only a dollar-fifty! Ka-ching, ka-ching. Move along sir, move along ma’am, move along boys and girls. This dome of mine can easily house all 40,000 of you, along with all you ragamuffins who have been sneaking in for free. And once you’re inside, there is no need to wear masks or worry about social distancing. So step right up, folks. There is plenty of room for a whole lot more of you. Ka-ching, ka-ching…
(to be continued…)