by David Clerson
While David Clerson’s first novel, Brothers, was sweeping, allegorical, and pull-no-punches dark, En rampant is anchored in the real, paranoid, present, albeit with a significant dash of magical realism: Samuel, a PhD student at Colombia, agrees to ghost-write a book about conspiracy theories. But these “secrets of humanity” worm their way into Samuel’s mind, and soon his world is crawling with… perhaps hallucinations, or perhaps beastly manifestations of civilization crashing down. Through the parallel narrative of Samuel’s primatologist girlfriend and with the shadowy presence of his recently disabled childhood friend, the novel explores what it means to be human, and delves into all-too-timely themes of social machinations and the insanity of acute individualism. Below are two chapters translated by Katia Grubisic, who translated Brothers for QC Fiction.
I had refused, obviously I had refused, but in the middle of the night I woke up imagining thousands of insects cracking under my body in a labyrinth full of beasts.
I got up, went to the bathroom, and splashed water on my face.
Back in my room I could feel the gibbon and the uakari up on the wall looking at me, and I went to lie down on the living room sofa, where the cat joined me.
I closed my eyes, I imagined Spiroberg whispering dryly: “You’re nothing but an ape after all, like the others.” It was true. I would have liked to be a monkey, naked, walking through the Ugandan rain forest with Julia holding my hand, at the dawn of humanity.
The cat purred on my stomach.
That made me smile, and I let myself fall back asleep, to vivid dreams in which I saw the woman I loved.
When dawn roused me I thought I was walking through a desert.
I sat down at my computer and flipped through my research—“Counterlogic of conspiracies,” “Repetitive structures of conspiracy scenarios,” “The Deresponsiblization of paranoia”—and thought again about Spiroberg, his bald head, his cracking joints, his parasitic voice.
I closed my eyes, breathing slowly: my head ached, and there was a buzzing in my ears.
I opened a new file and wrote, as if hypnotized. My writing was alive, living; I could taste its rhythm. I wrote on the origin of life, the history of humanity, and on the times to come. I wrote about the animal kingdom, about all that creeps, walks, and swims. I wrote of winged things, the eternal rotation of the planet, and the enormity of the sky.
I thought I heard the voice of Abel muttering in my ear like he used to, all those words we loved and which we spoke to each other without really understanding them—theosophy, gnosis, Agartha, the apocalypse—and I wrote on the secrets of the Rosy Cross, the Masons, the Golden Dawn, the Priory of Sion, the Mayan incantations at Tikal, the Navajos of New Mexico, the civilizations of reptiles and insects that predated humans, and the reign of powerful and perverse dynasties that had been plotting since the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to bring down humankind, the cursed kings of the Middle Ages, up to the conquistadors who torched cities, the British soldiers spreading smallpox among the First Nations, of abusive totalitarian regimes and, more recently, of destructive neoliberalism and the war on terror.
I wrote about the emergence of life, about prehuman worlds and apocalyptic futures. I sketched the outlines of future man, as heralded by indigo children, or conceived in laboratories by geneticists at work like prophets to define beings still uninvented.
I threw down ideas at random, making imperfect connections, but the imperfections wove into the sentences. I found the whole exercise stupid, which made me laugh, and I felt good, smiling at my own vanity. I only stopped because I was exhausted, and fell asleep on the sofa, where the cat was waiting for me. Under the watchful eye of the monkeys, I felt like a delinquent.
When I woke up again it was early afternoon and I had to leave for a seminar, without having time for coffee or a shower, and again I felt stupid, but it wasn’t funny anymore, just mediocre.
That night I reread my logorrheic prose and deleted it before turning back to my dissertation, without being able to write a single word.
The next day I received a message from Spiroberg: “I’d like to go over a few things. Could we find a time to meet?” I didn’t answer.
I woke early the days that followed. I didn’t stay in the narrow apartment. I walked through Central Park thinking of Mount Royal, its narrower paths climbing deep into the shadows, where Julia and I often saw no one at all, or else a rare passerby, maybe a man who would disappear and whose very existence we would doubt, and I would have liked to be on the mountain, to hear my heart beating in my chest as I walked up those paths, to lie down in a clearing, Julia asleep with her head on my belly, listening to some strange music.
I walked for a long time. The bottoms of my feet were sore. And yet I didn’t turn home.
After a few days it got colder—an unexpected early-April chill. I no longer went to the park. I went back to the university. It was hard to work there but I sat in on lectures and talks. I spent hours reading foreign newspapers in the Butler Library. I chatted with colleagues, I kept busy.
After leaving the university, I met up with Ferhat at the bar. We talked about my studies, about American conspiracy culture, which sometimes seemed to have replaced reality in this land of freedom where everything was controlled, where cameras monitored every street corner, and satellites and drones spied on us from above.
One night, when I was telling him about Spiroberg, Ferhat said, “Imagine, you could have your whole university career fall apart and still become a bestselling author!” I laughed with him; I ordered us another round.
Sitting at the bar he sometimes told me about exile, about arriving on American soil, far from the Istanbul of his birth, a city that now seemed foreign to him, and which he sometimes found he couldn’t recognize. He described its winding streets and I imagined them crossing again and again in the heart of a megalopolis that kept growing, to enormous proportions, stretching along each shore of the Bosphorus, and I thought of Clifton, I remembered its paths, the remains of a deer gutted by a hunter, Abel running with me, his voice slipping in my ears and through my belly and my head.
But I said almost nothing. I kept my mouth shut and everything I didn’t say growled in my gut.
The bar was filling up. People huddled around tables. Their voices folded into the music. Ferhat was still talking, but I had a hard time keeping track.
When I left I took my time before hailing a cab. I looked at the lights of the city, its shadows, a shadow from which there might be no escape. I thought of Julia, who was maybe climbing mountains, looking for gorillas, or forging through the underbrush quietly, listening for chimpanzees; I imagined the tiny critters scurrying at her feet, and it felt like ants were climbing up my legs. And I thought about Abel, his soft, crawling voice; I heard again the voice of Spiroberg.
At last I regained the solitude of my apartment and the feeling of being incomplete, Julia’s absence and the company of the monkeys. I imagined smiles spreading over their faces, their yellowish teeth, Cheshire cat teeth, and fleas popping in their hair.
Every day I walked up Avenue B, turned onto 14th Street, and headed underground, letting myself be carried along to the university. Sometimes, my eyes closed, I fantasized about quitting school, making frescoes with insects and esoteric symbols, or assembling the remains of taxidermied macaques—a creature like no other, with four arms and four legs, moving forward as its eight limbs turned—and I think that deep inside I wished something would happen, that someone would come and take my hand, because I couldn’t do anything alone.
Translation by Katia Grubisic