Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
Meeting my Maker
In the beginning, there was light.
More specifically, in Full o’Bull’s basement study, the rice paper lantern hanging from the ceiling was casting a circle of light on the floor directly underneath it. Big deal, you might say, as would I under normal circumstances.
But now that I was tripping on magic mushrooms, the marbled yellow of the vinyl flooring had come to life, as though I was looking at NASA footage of the burning gases on the surface of the sun. Imagine that, my dear readers, the source of our earthly existence, right smack in the middle of Full o’Bull’s basement floor!
I know, I know. I haven’t forgotten what I said earlier about the kitschness of drug experiences. But bear with me, folks. My excuse is that this particular shroom adventure is relevant to the plot of our novel. Or misadventure I should say. Things were about to go terribly, terribly wrong, and I’m still trying to figure out how it all happened.
To go back to the beginning: there I was, kneeling down on the floor, marveling at the churning flames inside the wondrous circle, when I heard the rumble of distant thunder. Holy fuck! It was the Creator Himself!
As if of their own accord, the shadows of my hands entered into the circle and shaped themselves into those of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “The Creation of Toby Quinn,” a voice deep within me announced, followed by another peal of thunder. Sweet Jesus, what was happening here?
It was only then that I figured out what the thunder was: it was Full o’Bull, walking around upstairs! The abrupt shift from the sublime to the ridiculous had me shaking with hysterical laughter for quite some time. Full o’ Bull as the Creator, imagine that!
Then again, wasn’t our universe so absurd and fucked up that it could only have been conceived by a fallible God? Indeed, by a God full of bull? Holy shit! What if Full o’ Bull really was the Creator?!
Can you believe it? Probably not. Nor can I, at least, not anymore. That’s typically the problem with these drug-induced revelations: they only make sense for as long as you’re high. But boy was I high, and boy did this crazy idea ever take hold of me: Lockdown in Amsterdam, the online novel that all you faithful fans had been following now for almost a year, was actually being written by Full o’ Bull, not me. And I was just its fictitious narrator, a mere figment of its true author’s imagination.
Like Hercule Poirot at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, excitedly pacing around the room while explaining to his dumbfounded listeners how he had come to solve the murder, I now set about reinterpreting everything that had transpired in this Amsterdam apartment over the past year, demonstrating how Full o’Bull had ample motive, means, and opportunity to be guilty of authoring my novel.
To begin with motive: God may have created man in his own image, but Full o’Bull created me in his own anti-image: young versus old, American versus European, womanizer versus faithful husband, insanely successful versus moderately so at best, the list goes on and on.
I was everything he hated, everything he envied, plus a few things he resembled more than he cared to admit, because that’s how this sort of psychology works. And why would he torment himself in this way?
Because that was the whole point! Just like a mosquito bite makes us constantly want to scratch ourselves, or, to use a more poetic metaphor, just like a grain of sand will trigger an oyster into forming a pearl, so a pesky character is intended to goad its inventor into writing a book.
Interestingly, I had come across a similar pain in the neck when leafing through Full o’Bull’s first novel, The Wild Numbers. Its protaganist Albert Swift is a mediocre middle-aged mathematician who is constantly being made fun of by Barry Oberlander, a bratty and way more brilliant younger colleague. Does that sound familiar, or what!
I guess that’s what old writers typically do: feeling sentimental, they will return to the themes of their early work. Except that now in Lockdown, Full o’ Bull had upped the ante by inserting himself into the story, bringing the drama cringeworthily close to home, even into his home.
So Full o’ Bull had motives aplenty to write my book, it would appear. But surely he didn’t have the means. Surely, all empirical evidence pointed in my direction, not his.
We needed only to check the debit column in the bank statements of any one of you fifty-thousand going on sixty-thousand subcribers over this past year, doublecheck with the credit column in mine, and ka-ching, case closed… unless you’ve been downloading these installments illegally, in which case, shame on you, but we’ll talk about that later. The point here is that in order to gain access to this novel, you needed to visit my website, www.tobyquinn.com. Right?
Wrong! If I was fictitious, then so was my website. In reality, in my magic mushroom-induced alternative reality, that is, Full o’ Bull had been posting these installments of Lockdown in Amsterdam on www.philibertschogt.com, a website that really does exist, by the way, in some dusty corner of the Internet.
Here’s where some of you might be thinking: why didn’t I check Full o’ Bull’s website myself? Surely I would have seen with my own eyes that the poor fellow had absolutely nothing to do with the writing of Lockdown in Amsterdam.
But that’s not how mystical revelation works. I had seen the light, period. Full o’Bull was my Creator. There was no need to “check” this truth, no room for doubt. If someone had grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, forcibly sat me down at the desk and shown me that there was nothing to see on Full o’Bull’s website, I would have come up with some ad hoc explanation, say, that he had hidden the novel behind a secret firewall.
I swear, talking me out of my crazy idea was as pointless as trying to persuade a Trump supporter that the elections hadn’t been stolen.
What about the English though? Surely a hotshot American writer like me, lauded as the spokesman of his generation, couldn’t believe for one minute that his prized and cherished literary voice was in fact the product of some obscure old Dutchman’s fantasy.
That was a bit of a stretch, I must admit. Then again, the guy did grow up in Canada. He even wrote his first novel, The Wild Numbers, in English. Now David Foster Wallace may have dismissed Full o’ Bull’s command of our language as rudimentary at best, claiming his book was “riddled with ESL-ish solecisms”, but as we came to learn a couple of installments back, our illustrious friend had ulterior motives for writing so disparagingly about my poor host’s tender firstling.
Based on the year that I had been shacked up with him now, my own sense was that although Full o’ Bull’s English did indeed sound a bit awkward and idiosyncratic at times, this could just as easily be attributed to his problematic personality as to a lack of aptitude.
And given that my so-called literary voice was reasonably straightforward and unsophisticated (“pedestrian and chatty” according to one critic), then by a shroom-induced stretch of the imagination, yes, I suppose I could trick myself into believing him capable of mastering that voice, even if it wasn’t in his mother tongue.
Speaking of languages, hadn’t Full o’Bull on more than one occasion expressed regret at having switched from English to Dutch early on in his literary career, missing what he called the natural flow of the former and characterizing the latter as “gritty” and “chunky”?
Viewed in this light, the lockdown in the title of this novel didn’t just pertain to the current Covid-19 pandemic, but also to Full o’ Bull’s sense of being stuck in the wrong language for the greatest part of his literary career. Cool, huh?
With motive (me as his alter-ego, English as his lost love) and means (his website) firmly established, the only thing left for Hercule Poirot to do was to demonstrate opportunity.
And that was easy: all this time!
Demoralized by the circular that he and a whole bunch of other writers, translators and editors received from the publisher at the very beginning of the lockdown, announcing that in the difficult times that lay ahead, the focus would come to lie on the commercially most viable work, putting books that required a “more personal approach” on hold, Full o’ Bull had abandoned all hope of his essay collection ever seeing the light of day.
Yet even in that darkest hour, our hero had refused to give up. Recalling that unfairness is where the fun begins, he had squared his shoulders and gritted his teeth, channeling all his rage and indignation into starting up a whole new novel: Lockdown in Amsterdam!
That’s what he had been working on ever since. Even if we deducted all the time wasted on baking quince pies, playing Bach and Beethoven on the piano, taking online Italian lessons and following the latest developments on CNN, not to mention wandering around the apartment heaving melodramatic sighs and bemoaning his fate, that still left him a good five to six hours a day.
Writing Lockdown in Amsterdam: that’s how Full o’Bull had been getting through this corona crisis. For over a year now! Pretty amazing, huh?
Hang on, though: hadn’t I bragged about needing only half an afternoon to write one of these chapters? Would it really take Full o’ Bull an entire month to produce the same quantity of text? Yep. I’m afraid so. In this respect, too, he and I were opposites.
“If you’re the fastest pen east of the Mississippi, I must be the slowest pen this side of the Atlantic,” he once said to me with a sad smile, adding that on average, it took him four years to write a novel. Four years! And they’re not exactly door stops either. Man, I’d go bananas if it took me that long to write a book.
Still, considering Full o’ Bull’s sluggish literary metabolism, Lockdown in Amsterdam could be regarded as a veritable tour de force. Already comparable in length to The Wild Numbers, he had come this far in just one year. Simply by identifying with his main character – me – he had nearly quadrupled his writing speed! Behold the power of the imagination, behold the miracle of creation!
But as I continued to stare into the churning flames on the basement floor, I realized there was a downside to this miracle. Where did all of this leave me, now that I was a mere figment of some crazy old Dutchman’s imagination?
And if I was fictitious, then so were my parents, so were my friends, so were all you wonderdul fans! And what about my publisher, and my agent, what about my faithful assistant Linda, or my lawyer Marty Liebermann, that fearsome streetfighter? Nope. Sorry. There they all went, sucked into the eternal flames of creation.
Now it was time for a sheer endless line of ex-girlfriends, Psychology 101, Psychology 102 and so forth, to come parading through my memory like so many misses in a beauty pageant: hocus pocus poof! and gone they were, up to and including my lockdown lovelies here in Amsterdam, the Booga Ball babes. Poof, poof, poof. Aw, damn!
Here again, you might be wondering why I didn’t do a simple reality check. My smartphone was lying right there on the desk. Why didn’t I just call my mother, or one of my friends, or Linda? Any one of the above would have answered the phone and ensured me that of course they were real, just as real as I was.
Would any of their reassurances have helped, though, given the state I was in? Can anyone really disprove the idea that life is but a dream?
And so, as I watched my past and my present slowly being consumed by the Eternal Circle of Creation on Full o’ Bull’s basement floor, my thoughts inevitably turned to the future. How was this story going to end? It sure didn’t look good. Not for me, at any rate.
I now understood why Full o’Bull of all people in this lockdown household had voted to let me stay longer, even gleefully rubbing his hands at the prospect. Did it really matter whether it was revenge, closure or acceptance that he was aiming for? Whatever the outcome, I was at his mercy. That was the bottom line.
If he felt like it, he could turn me into a goldfish and have me swimming in circles in a bowl for the rest of my miserable little existence. Or else, more in keeping with the stark realism that I had encountered while leafing throughThe Wild Numbers and Daalder’s Chocolates (the only other book of his that is available in an English translation, though not his own), he could chip away at my good fortune in any number of ways.
I could catch Covid-19, for instance, big time, that is, owing to some hitherto unknown underlying condition, or fall in love with one of the Booga Ball babes, seriously in love, that is, for the first time in my life, only to be cruelly rejected by her.
Or else… You know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if the passive-aggressive meta-fucker left things exactly as they were, letting me finish this novel as though I were still the one at the helm. Except that deep down, I’d know I was only kidding myself. That would be punishment enough. Damn!
There was only one thing left for me to do, and that was to let my creator know that I acknowledged his almightiness, and then hopefully negotiate some sort of a deal. I guess religious people would call this praying for mercy.
Scrambling to my feet and going out into the hallway, I hesitated at the foot of the stairs. I must have gone up and down those stupid steps thousands of times, only now, they filled me with dread.
I was standing at the bottom of the Stairway to Heaven! And even though my creator was nothing but a silly old novelist, a fallible God to say the least, a God full of bull, I would still be meeting my maker. Honestly folks, as I began to climb those stairs towards the light above, I thought I was dying.
Full o’ Bull was in the kitchen – where else! – preparing a porcini risotto for dinner, the chessboard vinyl flooring on which he was standing an all too apt reminder of the games he had been playing with me all along. His wife, I would later find out, was in the park meeting a friend, and his daughter was at work, meaning that my creator and I had heaven and earth – and possibly hell – all to ourselves.
“Hallelujah!” I exclaimed, coming to stand right next to him as he added some chopped garlic to the onions that were already sizzling in the saucepan. “Praise the Lord!”
“You think garlic is proof of God’s existence,” he said with a contented chuckle. “Wait till I start on the porcini!”
“Oh, please, Lord, cut the culinary niceties. You know damned well what this is about!”
“So I’m the lord now, am I? As in ‘lord of the castle’?”
“Lord of the asshole is more like it. And that asshole, of course, is me!”
When I let out a strange bark of laughter, Full o’ Bull’s amused expression changed into one of genuine concern.
“Speaking of mushrooms,” he began, bringing his face right up close to mine and studying my eyes more than looking into them, “you wouldn’t happen to be tripping, would you?”
“As if you don’t know! You’re the one making all of this up!”
“Go on playing dumb if you want, oh Lord, if that amuses you. But before you turn me into a goldfish and flush me down the toilet, at least hear me out.”
“A goldfish? Now there’s a thought.”
“Your omnipotence is not a joke, oh Lord, at least not for me! Now I’d gladly get down on my knees and beg you forgiveness for all the distress I’ve caused you this past year, were it not for the irreverence that you yourself have bestowed upon me, making any such sign of humility so grossly out of character that it would only come across as insincere.”
“Indeed it would,” he agreed.
“So let me instead thank you, my Lord, thank you for welcoming me, not into your physical home here in Amsterdam, as my presence here in this household is merely an illusion springing forth from your imagination; no, Lord, let me thank you for welcoming me into the novel that you have been working on this past year, Lockdown in Amsterdam. Thank you for making me its supposed narrator. Thank you, too, for making me a literary star, for making my life such a breeze, for letting me write with so much ease! Thank you for my happy-go-lucky nature, not to mention my luck with the ladies! Thank you, oh Lord, for blessing me with all the character traits that you yourself lack, and in so doing, making my life considerably more fun than your own. Amen.”
“Charming as ever,” he muttered, shaking his head.
During my rambling ode, as though coordinating every expression of thanks with a step in the recipe, he had poured two cups of arborio rice into the pan, giving the grains a good stir before dousing them with a glass of white wine. Next to go in was a somewhat bedraggled-looking heap of mushrooms, followed by a scoop of the water in which they had been soaking, dark as Coca Cola. Had the same sort of wizardry gone into creating my character?
“One thing I’ve been wondering about,” I now asked him. “Did you have to kill my dad? When I was ten years old? Was that the touch of umami needed to counter all the sweetness in my life, adding a little depth to my character, or, as a number of my ex-girlfriends have claimed, accounting for my assholishness? Huh? Huh?”
Full o’ Bull was amazing. Normally when he was preparing dinner, the kitchen was out of bounds for any other member of the household. Now I was standing right next to him, crowding him, breaching the safe space required by the current pandemic and breathing if not spitting right into his face.
But like a seasoned crisis negotiator, he didn’t so much as flinch. Whether you’re dealing with a suicidal person about to jump off a bridge, a jittery armed robber holding a bank employee at gunpoint, or an American bestseller author flipping out on magic mushrooms in your kitchen, the trick is to stay calm, empathetic, fatherly in the best sense of the word, thereby gaining your target’s trust.
Rather than dismissing my crazy story offhand, Full o’Bull was willing to enter into it, eventually hoping to break it down from within. All the while, he kept stirring the risotto, adding scoops of stock, and stirring once more, more than was strictly necessary, I’m sure, just to keep the motion fluid, just to calm me down.
Seemingly out of the blue, he started telling me about the trip he and his wife had made to Sri Lanka, back in the spring of 2019. Aha. A decoy maneuver, right out of the crisis negotiator’s handbook: share something personal with your target. Show them that you’re human, just like them.
They had only just arrived when on Easter Sunday, the country was rocked by a number of terrorist attacks on Christian churches, killing more than 250 people and prompting the Sri Lankan government to declare a state of emergency.
In the tense days that followed, in spite of the threat of further terrorist attacks that led foreign governments including the Dutch to organize mass evacuations of all the tourists still on the island, Full o’ Bull and his wife were among the few who had decided to stay on.
Somewhat guiltily they had continued to visit the country’s countless beautiful sites, often having entire temple complexes practically all to themselves, as well as enjoying the heart-warming hospitality of the Sri Lankan people, who were grateful that they had not turned their backs on them like all the other tourists.
After returning safely home, Full o’ Bull had written a blog describing their experiences, which he had posted on his website in weekly installments.
“It was something I had never tried before,” he said. “The people who read it really enjoyed it, my publisher even suggesting that I set my next novel in Sri Lanka. So as a literary experiment, the blog was a great success. Except for one thing.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Not enough visitors.”
“Exactly. I was lucky to attract twenty or thirty readers a day. And although some of them were kind enough to share a particular installment with their friends, it never really took off. My son, who had helped me set up the website, told me not to be surprised or disappointed. It was just the way social media work, or should we say: don’t work.”
“As in: trapped inside your bubble, stuck in a niche?”
“His very words. Blogs may be fun to experiment with, and it’s nice to get some feedback from family and friends every once in a while, but unless you’re really, really lucky or else an established literary star like you, they’re a dead end in terms of generating publicity.”
“If you say so,” I said non-committally.
“What’s more, when professional writers start handing out their prose for free, especially at my age, people will become suspicious. What’s wrong with this guy? Can’t he get his work released through the proper channels anymore? Is he so desperate to see his own words in print that he has taken to social media? Ugh, what an incontinent old has-been.”
“Ugh, indeed!” I said, as Full o’Bull added another spoonful of stock to the risotto and went back to stirring.
“Honestly, Toby. Don’t you think I learned my lesson from that Sri Lanka blog? It pushed my essay project back a good two months, meanwhile generating zero income. Why would I waste an entire year this time, working on an online novel that only a few dozen people would read if I were the one posting it rather than you, even if I were to offer it for free?”
“Why? I’ll tell you why. Because you can! Because the Covid-19 pandemic has created this weird limbo, allowing the unrealistic projects of many a self-deluded artist to fester.”
“Nasty,” said Full o’Bull with a smile. “But you’re right: this lockdown has provided me with a period of grace. Which is why I haven’t quite given up on my essay collection ‘How smart is it to be smart?’ Am I a wishful thinker? Time will tell, but the theme seems relevant as ever. After all, pandemics come and go, but we will always be stuck with our so-called intelligence, at least for as long as we don’t blow up our planet.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I think we’re just about done here,” he said, inspecting the mush clinging to the tip of the wooden spoon with a frown of approval. “It’s time for the finishing touch: a dash of parmesan!”
To the day that I die, I will always remember the eager vigor with which Full o’Bull grated the parmesan cheese, the elegant joie de vivre with which he subsequently sprinkled it over the bubbling broth. He was a great guy. He really was.
“Why don’t you grab a spoon and have a taste?” he had suggested to me brightly,
Just a spoonful of risotto and I would have landed safely on my feet. Just a spoonful and everything would have returned to normal.
As I opened the drawer to get a spoon, it must have been the glint of the carving knife that caught my eye. And that glint, my dear readers, was enough to undo all the good work my kind host had put into shepherding me back into the fold. Slowly closing my hand around the cold metal handle, I was sucked right back into my alternative reality.
As I would later testify in court, I meant him no harm. In fact, in my skewed perception, I couldn’t possibly do him any harm. After all, he was orchestrating the entire scene. All he needed to do was make the knife seem so hot to the touch that I’d let it fall to the ground, or he could turn it into a banana, or a bouquet of flowers.
But whatever he chose to do, it would force him to show his true colors, his higher nature, his godliness. That’s all I was aiming for. I wanted to cut through his Mr. Nice Guy act, to slice through the humble pie.
Poor Full o’ Bull. What else could he do, but stay calm and ask me to put down the knife? Yet it was that very calmness that now made my blood boil. Enough was enough.
“Cut the bull!” I cried.
Even as I lunged, I was still confident that he would stop me at the very last moment. Honestly folks, I never expected the blade to go straight through the tough material of his chef’s apron and several inches into his body.
Even as I pulled the knife back out again and Full o’Bull staggered back a few steps, dropping the wooden spoon and clutching his abdomen, I still thought he was faking it. The look of horrified dismay on his face reminded me of Sir John Gielgud or some such old-school Shakespearean actor who was about to exclaim “Et tu, Brute?” before collapsing onto the ground.
Blood began to ooze out from between his fingers. Oh, for fuck’s sake! Knowing all along that I would grab a knife at the end of this scene, he had concealed a bag of fake blood in the pouch of his chef’s apron. The over-the-top stage effect infuriated me. And so I lunged again.
As he sagged down onto the floor, I could hear him whimpering his wife’s name under his shallow breath, followed by those of his two children. And then I bore down on him. Pinning him to the ground with my free hand, I stabbed him again. And again and again.
Stabbing Full o’ Bull felt necessary. Stabbing him felt good. More than once, it felt as though I was avenging the death of my father. How strange, I remember thinking, even in my frenzy. Not long after my dad’s funeral, I was lying awake one night when, puzzled by my own lack of grief, I decided that I had never liked the guy all that much and was perfectly okay (or maybe even better off) without him. It was a liberating thought that had helped me fall asleep and had served me well ever since.
So who was this homicidal maniac in Full o’ Bull’s kitchen? Was this the inner child my ex-girlfriend Psychology 409 had been telling me about, locked deep inside the Alhambra of my creative genius for all these years, now finally set free?
“Stop it!” I yelled every time I plunged the knife into Full o’ Bull’s body, still hoping that he would stop the knife from being a knife, or else stop the so-called blood from gushing from his so-called wounds, or, after I had stabbed him in the neck, stop it from squirting, almost comically, into my face.
The dignified Shakespearean drama had long degenerated into a B-grade slasher movie, decidedly not my favorite genre, although I had to hand it to the special effects department. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!
With his fluttering eyelids and his quivering body occasionally tightening into what was intended to look like an involuntary spasm, Full o’ Bull was putting on a damned good show of dying, reminding me of Donald Sutherland in Death in Venice. No, wait. Not Death in Venice. That was Dirk Bogarde. What was the name of that other movie set in Venice, the one starring Donald Sutherland?
And then it was all over.
“What’s black and white and red all over?” a voice from a distant past asked me. It was my father, and we were sitting at a dinner table with a whole bunch of other people looking on. I was just a little kid, too little to understand the punny, not so funny answer to the riddle: a newspaper. What I understood all too well, though, was my dad’s subsequent laughter. He was a bit of a sadist, actually, the kind of guy who delighted in confusing a child (or an animal) in public.
Years later, in a book of jokes that an aunt gave me at my father’s funeral, I came across an equally corny alternative answer to the same riddle, my first encounter with a metajoke. What’s black and white and red all over? A newspaper? No. A zebra with a sunburn.
Now, more than twenty years later, the third answer to the riddle still didn’t make it any funnier. A zebra with a sunburn? No. Full o’ Bull’s kitchen floor.
Seventeen times I had stabbed him. Not that I had kept count. That’s what the forensic pathologist would later testify in court. Seventeen times, folks. I didn’t know I had it in me. Nor that a human body contained that much blood. God, what a mess.
Planting one foot on Full o’Bull’s body, not in triumph or out of disrespect, but simply because his kitchen was too goddamn small to put it anywhere else, I now took a spoon from the drawer and dipped it into the pan to scoop up a bit of the steaming risotto.
Closing my eyes to focus better on the symphony of textures and flavors that began to play on my palate, I heaved a deep sigh of appreciation. Holy umami, did that ever taste good! As Full o’ Bull had envisioned, just a spoonful of his porcini risotto was enough to bring me back to my senses, enough to bring me back to earth.
He had timed everything perfectly. Almost perfectly, I should say. Everything would have been just fine, if only I had grabbed a spoon when he told me to, rather than the knife.
My God, what had I done?
– T. Q.
(to be continued)