The Book Murderer (excerpt)

Jeff VanderMeer • August 25th, 2012 @ 10:55 am • Fiction

For awhile now I’ve been working on a novel entitled The Book Murderer. It’s a strange hybrid in that it has satirical elements (sending up all aspects of book culture) but becomes more and more psychologically three-dimensional as it goes along and you come to know the main character’s background. It probably has a little bit of something to offend everyone. And it’s incredibly sweary, for those who don’t like the sweary… (As readers should know by now, I often write characters I don’t agree with or don’t agree with in all particulars…)

Here’re the opening sections…

1.

If the Book Murderer had stopped long enough in his task—namely, the ceaseless destruction of books—to answer your questions from where you lay tied up on the floor, he would have told you he grew up in a room meant to be his alone that had slowly filled up with stolen books brought by his obsessed, hoarding librarian father. This sickness had left the Book Murderer to live in the equivalent of a prison cell and drove away for good a mother who had always been distant. “Not a single ray of fucking sunshine from the window,” he would have told you. “Not a slit of space between the books wide enough to keep a goddamn diary.” But that wouldn’t be the real reason for his purpose—just an expression of his contempt at your willingness to ascribe easy motives to the motiveless. And then he would have burned all of your books, and smiled.

2.

The Book Murderer lived in a large coastal city with a subtropical climate and a bay harbor that sheltered both container ships and commercial fishermen. The city exuded a kind of underlying darkness and stillness that the Book Murderer found a refreshing anecdote to the sea breezes and inexhaustible supply of bars serving tropical drinks. Only the summers and the truly detestable tourist trade—bringing with it the splayed-out open-paged leering porno that was the parade of countless trashy paperbacks—made the place vulgar. That and any time the city council decided to humiliate the long, high sea wall with gaudy festival decorations, visible from the Book Murderer’s fifth-floor apartment in the complex across the street.

For another, this view might have been an excellent way to surveil hunting grounds. But the Book Murderer had never harmed a single page of a single folio within a mile of his living quarters. “Do not wreak destruction where you nest,” he muttered sometimes, his motto influenced by the migratory birds he loved to watch on the mud flats in the fall…even though in response to a particularly abusive comment on his blog, he had had to admit that many of those birds did indeed kill things in their nests. “But that’s not the fucking point, idiot!”

The Book Murderer believed that people seeing him on the street in his neighborhood thought of him as an introspective, thoughtful sort who enjoyed long walks and bird-watching. A lyricist at heart if not in deed. None of them could ever possibly have guessed that he was a rapacious predator who had slaughtered books by the thousands. At most, they might wonder why he always wore black and sometimes indulged in long white gloves.

Once, though, the Book Murderer found Martha, an African-American woman in her fifties from down the street, staring at him oddly, head turned to the side. He realized he had been talking out-loud to himself, something about the hypocrisy of book reviewers. “Just a song, just fucking song lyrics,” he said to her, smiling—

Their rampant assholery is due mostly to the way
Their own envy of a degenerative act they
Themselves cannot perform
Deforms their already rancid opinions
Contributing yet another shit-brick
To the putrifying wall
That is the book culture.

“Nothing to effing see here!’—while he wondered how many truly ridiculous books she had in her personal library. (He believed he spoke in swears and curses in part from childhood example on his mother’s side and partly to deflect the keen observer from his poetic core.) As she straightened up, Martha’s look changed from concern to an unmistakable and wincing pity.

But still they saw not into the heart of him. He was no book.

3.

The Book Murderer had taken a mallet to books. He had stuffed them in ovens and turned up the heat. He had fired bullets into them in remote fields on the edge of the city just to watch the pages explode; hacked them apart with a machete and found they split as easily as coconuts. Taking his cue from a movie he had seen, the Book Murderer bought a used cow-punch slaughtering device from a bewildered wholesaler and executed many books that way, leaving them to die, fatally punctured, in alleyways. Some he dissolved in acid. Others he drowned en masse, late at night by the sea wall. Human trebuchet!

There were a thousand-and-one ways to kill a book, and he intended to try them all. The Book Murderer had plenty of time. His dead parents had left him a trust fund, and nothing in the provisions of that fund forbid him from destroying books. Certainly, his mother would have approved, assuming she was sober enough in Hell to have looked up and seen him at his work.

4.

The Book Murderer’s apartment served as his secret lair, headquarters for all that he had accomplished and hoped to accomplish. To anyone taking a casual look, it appeared quite ordinary: a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and office, with a little storage room and walk-in closet. The carpet stayed nicely vacuumed and clean. The sink rarely filled with dishes, even when the Book Murderer made his Sunday dinner: a big pot of chicken in a special stew-sauce, the leftovers enough to sustain him for half a week.

The bed stayed, at the very least, presentable, if not always reliably made. The furniture consisted of an old rosewood kitchen table and matching chairs, an heirloom from his family, a tasteful black-and-white futon in the living room with a couple of comfortable leather chairs opposite, and a glass coffee table redolent with little knick-knacks he’d brought from the ancestral home. Upon the table he also kept the only visible book in the apartment: a beat-up trade paperback copy of Khoury Needleman’s novel The Arc of Nothingness. In its curling pages, creases, coffee stains, and foxing, the Book Murderer saw it simply as a memento of an extraordinary trip, his decision to spare the book an acknowledgment of the importance of memory. Of course, those rare others who came in saw it merely as evidence that reading had taken place.

In the corner, he had placed more heirloom-salvage, this time from the rotting hulk of a failed art deco hotel called The Archipelago, owned by a cousin, located down the beach a ways. The best piece was an old, very large, painted wooden globe on wheels that showed the world approximately two years before a certain duke had his brains blown out in Serbia. Reproductions by Miro, Gaugin, Carrington, Dali, and Picasso—also salvaged from The Archipelago—gave a touch of somewhat generic class to walls he had painted a light and pleasing green.

Only vague touches of the out-of-the-ordinary remained to prickle the sensibilities of the suspicious. No bookshelves occurred anywhere in the apartment; he foreswore end tables or night stands because he didn’t like the impression of something staring at him from the corner of his vision; and a slight smell of disinfectant always lingered, threatening to metamorphose into something more unpleasant, like formaldehyde.

A closer look would have revealed that the store room and the walk-in closet hid all manner of book-destroying paraphernalia, from page-eating poisons and fungi to knives of various sizes and persuasions. The heavy artillery—including an old mortar—he kept out at the rotting Archipelago, in a securely locked store room.

The remnants of the corpses of books themselves lingered, shoved to the back of the closet, behind the rows of clothes: slashed pages, ripped spines, curling-cut circles of text, half of an old hardcover of Justine that had been subjected to the most violent torture. Acid had created runneling holes and fire had burned the rest to the point that only the words “the,” “cock,” and “suck” could be read at all on the foremost remaining page… although it was not at all clear that these words in their relative positions shared any camaraderie. The smell that came off of these butchered remains was the reason for the disinfectant; the combination of killing agents sometimes produced a mighty funk and stench. Murder was messy.

But—and it pained him to admit this—the central location for his operations remained his computer in his office. It was from his computer that invisible and clandestine rays of power and influence spread outward, in ways he could not possibly attain otherwise.

How? Primarily through a blog called “pre-subversive” and “defiantly ugly” by someone on facebook, but also a selection of black-ops e-books, and a vast array of pen-named alter-egos on a list beside his keyboard that expressed his dangerous opinions on comments threads running across the length and breadth of the internet. (For the Book Murderer could not be seen to lower himself into the pigs-blood-and-shit trough known as the blogosphere; the only place the Book Murderer ever commented as “himself” was within the safety of his own e-citadel.)

5.

Although he maintained a blog, the Book Murderer never truly published his work. Publication was for fools, idiots, and the deranged. One had only to open a newspaper or read an interview online to know that. Every minute of every day, some cretin was expressing an opinion about his or her book. A tower of talk constructed entirely from piles of slowly drying bullshit, a pablum so bland and yet so sour that you could almost see some of them trying to spit it out even as they said it. Surely, these people had been idiots before their small measure of notoriety? The book had not turned them stupid, had it? (Drinking his morning coffee at a corner pub that served breakfast, exchanging words with a sea gull: “He can’t believe that, can he? Can he believe such crap? I guess he believes it.”) Surely the stupidity had always been there, and they had had the poor grace to express it in print—the convenience of those few whose eyes had been forced wide open, like the Book Murderer, had thankfully sent up a huge warning flare signaling, “Stay away! A fucking moron lives here! I can barely stand myself!”

No, publication clearly formed the sign and symbol of the death of words, story ossified, fossilized, calcified—become akin to tartar on the teeth that when you examined it closely contained the fossils of tiny deformed creatures. You might escape being turned to stone if you published a story or two, but once you held your own book in your hands or on your e-reader, it was all over. Once published, you would by default begin to subconsciously compromise, change, be influenced by every moronic nose-picking, trans-fat gobbling reader with an opinion. And one day you would wake up metamorphosed into that pathetic and horrifying type of gargoyle known as an “author.” And then it was all over.

As the Book Murderer explained to the drunk named Larry sitting in the seat next to him at his favorite bar, The Bullheaded, late one night, this form of hell never ended, for even when out of print, those words, paragraphs, and scenes remained in certain graying cells of the communal memory. He would only confess such thoughts to drunks, late at night, when they were well into their cups. They never remembered, rarely turned out to be upstanding members of the community, and the bartenders by then were less concerned with your conversations than with closing up shop. (Bullheaded…what? It was the open-ended nature of the bar’s name—asking the patron’s complicity—rather than any comfort in its décor that brought the Book Murderer back again and again.)

“Yes, Larry, they fucking backtrack their way to you.” Larry, a leathery fellow stinking of booze and brine from the beach, issued forth a characteristically noncommittal belch or bellow that reminded the Book Murderer not unfavorably of a small whale, breaching. He continued: “The goddamn manifestation, do you know the form it takes? Inevitable—it’s some smarter-than-thou but shit-for-brains pimply-assed virgin of a grad student with enormous glasses and permanent crap-breath. Or it’s the sudden dysfunctional sycophantic cock-up of a follower who has ‘awoken’ and so lacks something in their own lives that they believe they have found meaning—do you get that, Larry: Meaning with a capital M—in someone else’s sad and pathetic writings. No matter how long they, or for that matter I dare say the follower! him- or herself, have been dead.”

“Agreed!” Larry said with enthusiasm despite doubtful comprehension. The bar tilted and swayed for the Book Murderer, with the pretty amber-and-emerald lights of the liquor bottles reminding him of ships at sea. It was well past his bed-time.

“Why, even I have even been subject to such a hell!” the Book Murder thought-talked as he lurched his way home. Lately, too, there had been increasing… interference… was the only word for it. Readers trying to follow him. Readers who, instead of directing a constant, almost noble piss-stream of hate toward his truths, claimed they wanted to be like him.

“Avaunt!” he proclaimed, finger swirling high in the air, at the elevator leading to his apartment as it lowered itself for his entrance. “Avaunt! No mercy, Mrs. Cartwright!” To the little old lady, revealed by the doors as if in a sudden spotlight, furtively bringing down her diarrhea-spewing hound for a shit-filled midnight gambol on the cool grass of the yard outside.

As Mrs. Cartwright approached, the Book Murderer proclaimed, “I do not know your real name, lady neighbor of mine, but you look like a Mrs. Cartwright to me, and that’s the way the world works, Mrs. Cartwright: we do not get to name ourselves all of the time. Now take your shit hound out for its bowel-rounds!” A hushed whisper as she passed by his left side—“I have mace and a very long knife”—hastened the Book Murderer into the elevator.

As the doors closed on him, the Book Murderer pondered the comment. Had he said something to offend? She lived just one floor up. She could have been one of the commenters on his blog, hater or friend? She could have been spying on him and his activities and he’d never suspect…but, no, that was ridiculous.

Wasn’t it?

6.

Many creatures had the capacity to eat books, or at least kill books. Capybaras, it turned out, liked the taste of paper. Shoving pages in a box full of silverfish would do the trick. Sharks, opossums, sloths, wombats, beavers, parrots, not necessarily in that order. Aardvarks, beetles, carpenter ants, dromedary camels, eels, fish. The only thing that stopped the Book Murderer from trying out some of these remedies was the need for cleanliness and order in his apartment. When he tried to imagine renting a capybara—could one rent a large rodent?—or keeping squawking, poop-dropping parrots, all the Book Murderer saw was clutter, even more than responsibility. In his imagination, his apartment became a soupy menagerie, subtropical in its humidity, stifling in its stench, and all of the cages, food bags, litter boxes, and other necessities piling up to the ceiling. The thought of it sent him into strange funk, a depression that settled in his bones like winter. For the Book Murderer had wanted a Corgie as a child, and this idea had stuck with him into adulthood…except he could not envision training a dog to use a litter box, or himself, as an alternative, fashioning some kind of “soulless butt bag to contain the contents of its intestines,” as he admitted to Larry at the bar. “No, not fair, either, given the number of daring nightly raids the Book Murderer conducts.” Saw it as if cracked open from a fortune cookie: Sad-eyed Corgie in a diaper waits at home for return of diabolical master.

Instead, he contented himself with going to the zoo with pockets stuffed with pages and feeding them to the goats and llamas in the petting zoo. Their nimble palpitating lips and grotesque chomping teeth made short work of many a volume, even if the kids complained when he skipped in line and gave him funny looks. “Look somewhere else, brat! Get used to the way the world works.”

In lieu of buying a menagerie, the Book Murderer once put on make-up, a wig, and a dress, and pushed a pram around with a fake baby in it, under several blankets. He stood in front of the brown bear enclosure until no one was around, and then he reached into the crib and flung a whole disemboweled but unabridged set of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire up and over the fence, before high-tailing it, baby unconvincingly bouncing around the whole way, despite the blankets. He walked out the front gates after having ditched the pram and dress in the bathroom of the monkey house, much to the confusion of the astonishingly foul-mouthed teenage girls renewing their lipstick and eyelash frostings at the mirror.

Later, the Book Murderer watched a short segment on the evening news about his escapades, titled “Giving Knowledge to the Bears” in which he was called “just the latest in a series of anonymous performance or street artists pushing the envelope of the art form.” The news report failed to mention the bears’ reaction at all, relying on some documentary footage of bears in the wild, intercut with an interview with the zoo’s assistant director rhapsodizing about the dangers of throwing things into cages, enclosures, and habitats.

But the question of the bears’ response worried at the Book Murderer for some reason. He turned off the TV, went out onto his balcony, looked out at the sea wall, and tried to imagine the event from the bears’ perspective. The lithe, ambiguous figure with the pram erupting into sudden action, the hefty books launched over the fence, spiraling down into the moat and knocking around, stained, on the yellow-grassed grounds beyond before falling over. Had they come running? Had it looked for a moment, that flash of pages in the sky, like the sudden flight of salmon from the water back in their ancestral hunting grounds? Had any connection at all formed in their massive craniums? To food, or something else they had been waiting for? Was it, at least, a welcome diversion from the scheduled boredom of their days?

And, most importantly, had they ripped the books apart, worried at them, torn their sorry spines out?

4 Responses to “The Book Murderer (excerpt)”

  1. SMD says:

    Oooooh. I hope you’re going to release it next year. Would love to interview you for Skiffy and Fanty and dig into your mind for the answers to the universe :)

  2. Robert Wali? says:

    Mmmm… sweary. Translators like it sweary. Makes our job much more enjoyable. Getting paid for inventing multi-layered, sophisticated, tongue-twisting obscenities? Bring it on!

  3. Keith Miller says:

    This looks absolutely fantastic!

  4. Redhead says:

    looks utterly creepy. also, completely addictive. I feel a little bit bad for this guy, books never directly harmed him, but he blames them for his fucked up childhood (and adulthood). all the ways he finds to destroy books? He gets points for creativity, that’s for sure. I wonder if that’s part of his illness, that he can’t kill a book the same way twice? such a trainwreck, I can’t look away!

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