Authors: Edward Carey
is a striking debut, not simply for the skill with which it conjures its bizarrerie but for the way it wrings pity from an incredible setting. When Carey alternates the reveries and recollections of his narrator’s parents, the resulting fugue is a tour de force.”
Times Literary Supplement
“The humor and ingenuity with which Carey presents his characters and the entropic universe which surrounds them are reminiscent not only of Beckett, but also of Georges Perec.… In his world, there are no ordinary people; everything is a seething mass of repressed desires, murderous impulses, and obsessive-compulsive tics. While this view of human nature might sound disturbing, it is conveyed with so much sympathy and acute observation that it is hard not to be beguiled. Far from being grotesque, the other tenants of Carey’s lovingly built microcosm come across as rather admirable in their last-ditch resistance to the forces of conventional reality.”
“With this extraordinary character, and the appealingly deranged inhabitants of Observatory Mansions, Carey has created and imaginary world brimming with the weird, the wonderful, and the unexpected.”
“Carey is nothing short of a genius.… Brilliant.”
“Edward Carey has an imagination of tremendous range and power. He transforms the familiar stuff of life into shapes utterly strange and marvelous. This is a novel of truly startling originality.”
Edward Carey is a playwright and illustrator in London. This is his first novel.
FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, FEBRUARY 2002
Copyright © 2000 by Edward Carey
Illustrations copyright © 2000 by Edward Carey
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Picador in 2000, and subsequently in hardcover in the United States by Crown Publishers, New York, in 2001.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Marin Sorescu for permission to reprint an excerpt from
The Biggest Egg in the World
, translated by Paul Muldoon with Ioana Russell-Gebbett (Newcastle upon Tyne, England:
Bloodaxe Books, 1987).
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Contemporaries and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Crown edition as follows: Carey, Edward, 1970–
Observatory mansions / Edward Carey. –1st. ed.
1. Eccentrics and eccentricities—Fiction. 2. Collectors and collecting—Fiction. 3. Apartment houses—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6053.A6813 O27 2001
Author photograph © Elizabeth Carter
For my mother and father
Very many thanks are due to Elizabeth Carter, Pascal Morisset, Sonja Müller and Claudia Woolgar for providing me with places in which to write this book, and also to Robert Coover, Isobel Dixon, Ann Patty and Richard Milner for their excellent advice in helping me to finish it.
I gloved and greaved
my hands, my legs, my thoughts,
leaving no part of my person
exposed to touch
or other poisons.
I wore white gloves. I lived with my mother and father. I was not a child. I was thirty-seven years old. My bottom lip was swollen. I wore white gloves though I was not a servant. I did not play in a brass band. I was not a waiter. I was not a magician. I was the attendant of a museum. A museum of significant objects. I wore white gloves so that I would not damage any of the nine hundred and eighty-six objects in the museum. I wore white gloves so that I would not have to touch anything with my bare hands. I wore white gloves so that I would not have to look at my own hands.
I lived in a city, as many people do, a small city, an unspectacular city, a not very famous city. I lived in a large building but had access only to a small part of it. Other people lived around me. I hardly knew them.
The building we lived in was a huge, four-storey cube in the neo-classical design called Observatory Mansions. Observatory Mansions was dirty. Black stains like large unhealing scabs fouled the exterior, and sprayed on its grey walls in red and yellow car paint were various messages delivered at night by some anonymous vandal. The most immediately noticeable being:
And even you can find love
. The building’s only notable features, save for its plainness and size, were the four simple columns that supported the entrance portico. The columns were badly scratched and dented, one in particular was inclined to slouch. The building’s only other irregularity was the dome on the slate roof, directly above the entrance hall. In this dome, once upon a time, was an observatory. An observatory now lacking telescopes, now an unproclaimed
sanctuary for pigeons, their shit, their young, their dying and dead.
Observatory Mansions once sat in the countryside, surrounded by outhouses and stable buildings, parkland and fields. In time the city crept up to it, covering with each new year more fields, until it reached the parkland, which it smothered in asphalt, and the outhouses, which it knocked down. Only the house itself, that large grey cube, remained. They built a circular wall, ten foot high, around the house, a barricade, a statement that this was as far as the city would get. But the city carried on, way beyond our home, building yet more roads and houses. And as the city continued, the roads that neighboured Observatory Mansions became ever wider and more frequented, a river growing in confidence, until an ox-bow lake was formed and Observatory Mansions became an island. A roundabout, a traffic island, forgotten by the city but surrounded by its quickly flowing business.
I often thought of our home as a solid, hairless and ancient man. This man, sitting with his flabby arms hugging his round knees, stares hopelessly down at the traffic, at the smaller, modern, neighbouring buildings, at the countless people rushing by. He sighs heavily; he’s not sure why he’s still here. The old man is not well, the old man is dying. He suffers from countless ailments, his skin is discoloured, his internal organs are haemorrhaging.
This was our home and we were even tolerably happy living there, until a new resident came.
Our first rumour of the new resident came to us in the form of a little note pinned on to the noticeboard in the entrance hall. It said:
Flat 18 –
To be occupied.
A simple note that filled us with fear. The Porter placed the note there. He knew what we wanted to know: we wanted to know who it was that wanted to occupy flat eighteen. He placed the note there because he knew it would upset us. He could merely have kept quiet and a week later we would be stunned to hear someone busy about the living business in flat eighteen, unannounced. But he warned us, knowing how it would upset us. His only motive was to upset us. He knew that we would all separately be spending the week worrying over the mysterious person who was to occupy flat eighteen, and that he alone would keep the secret because no one ever spoke to him.
The Porter would not open his mouth, except to hiss. The Porter hissed at us if we came too near to him. That hiss meant –
. And we did. It was not pleasant to come too close to the Porter’s hiss. It was not pleasant to come too close to the Porter. So even if we were to have enquired about the new resident the reply would have been a hiss.
. We had to wait. And more than anything else we hated waiting. Suspense was bad for our unfit hearts. We were left to imagine the future occupant of flat eighteen – for a whole week.
And for a whole week we were terrified. We slept short nights. We would find each other examining flat eighteen, as if by simply being in that specific section of the building which filled us with disquiet we would immediately understand what sort of person it was that was soon to occupy it. When we saw each other there we backed away, ashamed. If we entered the flat while the Porter was cleaning it, he would hiss us out of the place. We would run back to our own homes, shaking.
Flat eighteen, which had been a large dressing room and bedroom when Observatory Mansions was a country residence, was now similar to the other flats on the third floor; we found no clues inside it. We wanted to take floorboards
out, damage the plumbing, cut the electricity lines. Anything to make the new resident know that he was unwelcome. We wanted to, but we did nothing. We sat thinking, paralysed by panic, with sweat on our foreheads, on the privacy of our lavatory seats, behind locked doors. We ate less. If the week had been any longer than a week we should all have been noticeably thinner.