A question ex-pats in China are often asked is: Why did you come to China? Here, by way of fiction, is an attempt at an answer:
The Screen Room
There’s a photograph of Earth, taken by one of the Apollo 11 astronauts, on the wall of my apartment. I lie on the bed and look at that photo, too drunk to do anything more than just get my shoes off. The photograph, a poster approximately one metre by half a metre, is old. I look at it. I think of the places I’ve been, now all blurred together like a chalk drawing under rain; I’ve been travelling back and forth for years. I trace my forefinger across the oceans, across the continents, tracing the paths I’ve made, the paths I’m yet to make…
There was a gathering of magicians one day in the town. The mayor had requested their presence. ‘The people are restless,’ he said, ‘they are bored, and I want you magicians to do something about it.’ The magicians, Mr. X, Mr. Y and Mr. Z, left the mayor’s mansion and conferred. ‘Are the people restless?’ Y said. ‘They don’t appear particularly bored to me,’ Z said. ‘If the mayor says they are restless and bored, they are restless and bored,’ X said. That evening the magicians took their response to the mayor. ‘If the people are bored,’ said the chief magician, X, ‘perhaps we can inundate them with new information, thereby stimulating their brains to an intense degree, in which case they will have no option but to not be bored.’ The other magicians, Y and Z, who flanked X, nodded. The mayor put his thumb and forefinger to his chin, looked silently a moment at the magicians, before saying, to himself, ‘Yes, new information,’ and then, to the magicians, ‘Begin! As soon as possible!’
The next morning the mayor left his bedroom and before eating breakfast strolled down the corridor of his mansion to the Screen Room. The wall opposite the door was covered with television screens. Each screen relayed images from CCTV cameras placed all over the town, on telephone poles, outside shops and pubs, and three screens, in the centre of the wall, relayed images from cameras attached to three unmanned aircraft, which hovered daily above the town, like metal insects, droning. The mayor sat in his leather adjustable chair and watched the screens. On each was a scene of the town, and the town’s inhabitants who, that morning, had woken up to the magicians’ subtle but unsettling changes. The magicians entered the Screen Room. The mayor pointed at one of the screens. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘See those men arguing…’
‘… neighbours but I guess I was wrong.’ ‘Look, you’ve got it all wrong.’ A tree that the previous evening had been in one of the men’s gardens was now in the second man’s garden, causing the first man, Jimmy, to accuse the second, Ivan, of thievery, an accusation Ivan tried, but failed, to refute. ‘But why in the name of God would I steal your tree, Jimmy. Christ I thought you knew me better than that.’ ‘I’m standing here looking at the tree, Ivan, and it’s in your garden, not mine.’ ‘Logic, Jimmy, logic. You’re not thinking straight. If I stole your bloody sycamore I’d hardly plant it in my garden, in full view, now would I?’ ‘You’re double-bluffing me, Ivan.’ ‘We’re not playing poker, Jimmy.’ ‘I want my bloody tree back.’ ‘Take your bloody tree back.’ ‘I fucking…’
In the Screen Room, the mayor laughed. ‘This is excellent, excellent,’ he said. ‘Keep it up, keep up the good work.’ The magicians glanced at one another and smiled. That night, and the night after that, and after that, on and on and on, the magicians rearranged the town. And everyday the mayor spent at least three hours in the Screen Room, watching the people’s reactions, chuckling, laughing, rolling on the floor. One afternoon, however, a month after the magicians had first gathered, the mayor yawned and, standing up, left the Screen Room. The magicians watched him leave. X looked at his watch. ‘He usually stays for longer,’ he said. ‘Perhaps he is getting bored,’ Y said. ‘Yes,’ said Z. ‘We have to… up the ante,’ said X. ‘We have to keep him interested. It is in our interest to keep him interested.’ Y and Z nodded.
The following morning, the people awoke to a new sight outside their houses. The town, which, the previous night, as it had always been, set upon the valley floor, surrounded by black mountains, was now set upon the coast, beside a raging ocean.
The mayor watched the screens. The magicians, X, Y and Z, stood behind him, also watching. The expressions of bewilderment on the people’s faces as they wandered about the streets were highly entertaining, better than television. ‘Very good,’ the mayor said, ‘very good.’ ‘Well,’ said X, ‘the people are no longer bored.’ The mayor laughed. ‘Certainly not,’ he said. And, without turning around to face the magicians, he said, ‘Good work, keep it up…’
The magicians obliged. The following morning, and the morning after that, and the one after that, day after day, the people awoke to a new sight outside their houses. The town was transported, each night, by the magicians, from one part of the globe to another, from the Sahara to the Arctic, from the grasslands of Patagonia to Australia’s red centre, from riverbanks to the hard shoulders of motorways. At first, this was a novelty, and the people – some, not all – enjoyed or at least tried to enjoy the daily relocation. Soon, however, the instability began to make the people dizzy and sick, and uncertainty took hold, boring holes in their stomachs, churning their stomachs’ contents and the novelty, cooled down, was replaced by a kind of nausea, travel-sickness, weariness, suspicion, disorientation, and the people wanted routine, wanted to wake up where they’d fallen asleep the night before.
Of all the town’s inhabitants, Ivan Pitts had the most difficulty dealing with the daily inundation of new information. Ivan was a mathematician. When the town’s daily relocations began, Ivan tried to retreat to the world of absolutes: one plus one equals two, that sort of thing. Numbers provided him some comfort, especially now, now that the town had become so incessantly and painfully, tortuosly, complicated and unstable that it was difficult to live without either surrendering to apathy and/or ritual or, as Ivan had done, finding temporary solace in the realm of absolutes, the unchanging realm of geometry and numbers. Ivan had innumerable notebooks, a sequence of them, which he’d begun scribbling in since the magician’s spells had intensified. On the first notebook, on the top of the first page, he had written 0., zero, that is, followed by a decimal-point, and had followed that decimal-point with the number 3. Every day he filled pages upon pages with the number 3. One-third is infinity. He called the notebooks, each of them, A Little Piece of Eternity and had decided that as long as every morning brought new surroundings for the town, outside his window, he’d continue filling up pages with the number 3, 3, 3, 3, 3… 0.3333333333… Zero, followed by a decimal-point, followed by a repeating sequence of 3s. God is an irrational fraction, the eternity between the numbers 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4, etc., etc., etc.. If only he’d enough notebooks and enough time to fill the entire Universe with notebooks so that the Universe was nothing but a clutter of notebooks, and every notebook a piece of the irrational fraction. Infinity is a fraction. Fractions, one number over another, one integer over another integer as an algorithm of eternity, unlike pi which can be written simplified as π because only the Universe knows accurately the circumference of a circle, which, Ivan thought, is appropriate, since eternity and circles are equated symbolically and, he thought, the value of π (the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, a transcendental number, its decimal representation never ending or repeating, a dimensionless quantity, a number without physical units) is something that, if scribbled down, non-stop, forever adding digits to the 3.14159265… etc., etc., etc., that person would need to be immortal and would need to keep writing but would not be able to keep up with the Universe which knows π because it knows no changes, knows no instability, but is, at the same time, ignorant of time. The circumference of a circle is an immortal number. Though will the Big Crunch destroy numbers, too?
The mayor stepped into the Screen Room, followed by the three magicians. This morning, twenty-five of the thirty screens showed a group of people on their knees, staring up at the cameras. The expressions on their faces were fearful and submissive, like scolded dogs, about to be shot. The mayor stopped mid-step. Behind him, the magicians bumped into one another and into the mayor’s back. ‘Why are these people staring up at the cameras?’ the mayor said. ‘What in the name of…’ ‘Ritual,’ said X. ‘Worship,’ said Y. ‘Ritual? Worship? I don’t follow,’ said the mayor. ‘Well, Mr Mayor, you see, because the cameras are parctically the only things which remain the same, despite the town’s constant relocation, because the cameras are always there, the people…’ ‘Some of the people,’ said Z, interrupting. ‘Yes, some of the people have begun to, well, I don’t know if worship is the proper word, but in any case they, you’ve heard of the Hindus, Mr Mayor?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Every morning a Hindu places some food or offering to the god of his or her choice, in their houses they have little shrines, a picture or statue of the god and they place an offering in front of it, every morning.’ ‘And you’re saying what’s going on here’ – the mayor pointed at the screens – ‘is the same thing?’ ‘Similar, Mr Mayor, similar.’
Every morning, no matter where they awoke, whether surrounded now by a teeming metropolis, now by a quiet village, now by stifling desert, the people bowed down in front of the CCTV cameras and repeated mantras. As time passed, the rituals became increasingly detailed. But there remained those whose minds had been so damaged by the daily relocation that they did not even trust the cameras and were afraid that they, too, might disappear. These people believed the rituals, although useful, to be frail, and prey to interference. So, instead of every morning,noonand evening bowing down to the cameras these people looked inward. Many of them sat meditating all day. These people retreated inward, and tried to ignore the outside world. It was as well not to sense anything, not to feel anything, in such a world.
The mayor pointed at one of the screens. ‘Look at him,’ he said, ‘look at that man.’ The magicians looked at the screen at which the mayor was pointing. The man on the screen was standing on a bridge wall, above a river. He was looking down at the water. ‘It looks like he is thinking of throwing himself in, Mr Mayor,’ X said. ‘It does, doesn’t it,’ said the mayor. ‘I’ve never seen somebody commit suicide before,’ he said. He sat forward.
From upriver swept a damp cold wind, which played with Ivan’s hair. He watched the river. In order to definitively figure out the circumference of a circle, you must look forward to your own death, you must not be of the flesh, because 22 above 7 is only an approximation of eternity. Closing his eyes, Ivan rose his arms…
The mayor gasped. ‘Did you see that?’ he said. The magicians said, ‘Yes, Mr. Mayor, we did.’ ‘Rewind the tape,’ the mayor said. Y stepped forward, rewound the tape and pressed play. All four watched Ivan throw himself in the river again. And again. And again. The mayor shook his head. ‘Unbelievable,’ he said. ‘Unbelievable.’
Ivan’s suicide was the first, but not the last. Every day contained a new suicide for the mayor’s flickering eyes, which suicides kept him occupied and entertained, for a while. He’d ask the magicians to rewind the tape so that he could watch again. Most suicides threw themselves into water, from a bridge, from a cliff, depending where the town had been relocated to. Some shot themselves in the head. Some hung themselves from trees or lampposts. (Some hung themselves from the poles upon which the CCTV cameras were attached. The mayor watched these suicides in close-up). Others stabbed themselves in the heart or slashed their wrists. On occastion, two, even three, suicides occurred simultaneously, on different screens, and the mayor, flustered, would say, ‘Oh I need three pairs of eyes for this, three pairs of eyes…’ But the suicides, too, after a while, no longer excited the mayor. And one day, after watching another… ‘Will I rewind the tape, Mr Mayor?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘No?’ ‘No.’ The magicians glanced at one another, apprehensive.
Intervals between uprootings/relocations were shortened from each night to every twelve hours, then every six hours, every three hours, until uprootings occurred every hour, on the hour.
The mayor watched the people collapse, laugh dementedly, kill themselves, kill each other, laugh dementedly, collapse…
I was five years old, maybe six, maybe seven, when the mayor was ousted from power. The men who took his place in the mansion remembered the time before the mayor, when all was stable and predictable, when everything was fixed, when you’d wake up in the morning and know what was beyond your window, when you’d be fairly certain of where you were. But, with the mayor gone, a certain amount of stability and familiarity entered our lives. And those, like me, who were born during the mayor’s reign, were, as you can imagine, unsettled by this renewed solidity and stability, a state of affairs we’d never known. We’d grown up expecting incessant flux, we’d grown up with the knowledge that nothing was stable, with the expectation that every morning the world would be different from the day before. But now, everyday, everything was the same. All that instability of our early, formative years had soaked so deeply into our bones that the sudden renewal of external stability frightened the hell out of us. Some adapted. Some didn’t. And those, like me, who failed to adapt, found themselves terribly restless. We left our families. We began long, sometimes lonely journeys, walking every day, no matter how blistered our feet were, in order to satisfy the cravings that had been implanted in us since birth, in order to wake up in a different place, trying to recapture the constant novelty of the surroundings of our youth. And now we constantly wander. But, unlike nomads, it isn’t the seasons or herds of buffalo or reindeer or livestock we follow, it’s the impulse, the need for new sights, new surroundings, everyday.