A lot of people tell me my voice is similar to that of the actor Christopher Walken. I don’t believe them. And I would prefer it if you did not imagine him reading this to you now.
There’s this guy – an old guy – who lives in the house next door to mine. Our homes, from the outside, are the same. The same windows, the same driveway and the same lawn. The same aluminium front door and the same stylish-ten-years-ago uplighting.
I’m not sure how long this neighbour – let’s call him Billy Crystal – has lived next door to me. I only got to meet him very recently. You might think that this would make one of us – myself or Billy – a recluse or a shut-in. Well, you would be wrong. We just didn’t cross paths. In my corner of Richmond, Virginia this is not unusual.
The series of events which led to my neighbour and I meeting were as follows. It was a Tuesday. It was late. Let’s say eleven. If I can swing it, I like to be in bed by ten as it takes me around two-and-a-half hours to fall asleep. I had just got back from shooting a rock and roll concert and needed to take out the trash. I opened up my pedal-activated chrome trash-can and lifted out the bag, placing it inside another bag. After spraying the inside of the can with disinfectant I looped the inner bag’s handles under the outer-bag’s and secured the whole thing with a knot. Tight.
At the front of my drive there’s a sort-of-box in which trash is put. I was on my way to this box when I noticed I was walking step-for-step in time with another man, also taking out his garbage, over the fence to my left. He looked a little like me. A bit older and looser. I stopped and, feeling chipper, yelled a greeting of ‘Hello neighbour!’
This startled the other guy and he dropped his garbage bag. It hit the ground and split open, red chunks of meat and liquid sliding out across his lawn.
Did I ever want to scream. There was a fence between us but I could see rivulets of blood trickling toward me like tramp’s piss down a hill. Get away from this guy, I’m thinking, because he will kill you. Clearly.
God only knows why but I didn’t scream or run. Instead, I pointed at the gore and said ‘Hey, I love casserole.’ We both had a laugh, then I went into my houses and was sick for an hour.
I woke up the next day and went to work. I make films. Reality television documentaries. I also do concerts and weddings. To make ends meet. Over the last couple of years I’ve been doing on average four or five concerts or weddings a month. If I have to do more than that I get very depressed.
My producer and I rent office space at the bottom of my road. His name is Michael Douglas, if you can believe that. When I enter, he offers me a line and tells me our documentary which he’d pitched to the local news channels has been turned down by everyone. I get angry. Michael, you fucking prick, I shout. What the hell kind of producer are you? How did you fail to sell a film about people who fuck their pets? He looks up, coke all over his face, and for a moment I think he may be about to cry. I pat him and say not to worry. It’s the Lunar New Year in three weeks, I tell him. There’ll be a whole load of Chinks getting married.
I sit there and do lines with Michael Douglas, listening to him reminisce about the days when people still made television that did not solely feature the obese, the deluded or the disgusting. Before colluding execproducers and network bosses decided America could import all of its ‘cerebral content’ from overseas and focus on what it does best. ‘Best’ in this context is used in a relative capacity. ‘Best’ is the bearded lady. And she’s on every channel. Every day. We gotta get back to before, Michael keeps muttering to himself, as if he were a creative. We gotta get back to before.
From the office window, over Michael Douglas’s shoulder, I caught sight of the delivery kid dropping off a white box at my house. I couldn’t tell whether it was groceries or my new charcoal-grey woollen blazer. It’s impossible to tell from the white box alone. Everything arrives in a white box.
I used Michael Douglas inability to sell our documentary as an excuse to leave work early. Truthfully I just wanted to see what was in the box. It’s a nice blazer and I was looking forward to hanging it up alongside the others. As I passed my neighbour’s house I noticed that he also had a box waiting for him. This is not unusual in itself. Face-to-face shopping is something you do in Puerto Rico, not Richmond, Virginia. His box was bigger than mine. It was large. I gave it a small kick as I passed. Tins, definitely tins. And some glass. Apparatus.
How do I spend my evenings if I’m not working? I put things into cupboards. I clean surfaces. I throw out objects and items which no longer play a part in my life. Fine-tuning my living space until it resembles that sleek, featureless chamber which we all, as humans, apparently share a desire to live in nowadays. I went through a phase about three years ago during which I actually surrounded myself with stuff I owned. Posters on the wall. Spools of film. My first edition Mary Shelley. I got self-conscious about it whenever people visited though. And then my ex-wife freaked out and threatened to tell the custody lawyer about my peculiar behaviour. So I put it all away again.
It was about ten o’clock when I found myself sat halfway up the staircase, trying to placate the sense of dread bubbling away in my stomach. I get anxious. Anxious about money. Anxious about never achieving anything ever again professionally. Anxious about dying alone. Occasionally it comes to the surface and I just sit there. Curled up like a hedgehog or a retard. Propped against this little window that looks out over my lawn. It’s always silent out on my street. Silent in the way that only neighbourhoods full of comfortable assholes can be. And there’s a bluishness to the moonlight in this part of the world. Like someone’s spilled ink over everything.
Out of the window, across the yard, and through another window identical to my own I caught a glimpse of my neighbour going about his business. Walking around in his underwear. He looked so happy, I swear. His world, it seemed to me in that moment, was one in which everything’s great. A world devoid of credit ratings and pressure and boredom and old friends who tell me I could still go into advertising. I climbed the seven remaining steps to my bedroom and lay on top of the freshly laundered Egyptian-cotton sheets, thinking about Billy Crystal.
The next day I visited the office early and collected every pin-hole and button camera I could get my hands on. About eight in all. Very small. Wireless. Michael Douglas asked what I was doing. I didn’t tell him. He can’t keep secrets, the jackass.
By the time I got back home I was on autopilot. One in my window, one up on the roof looking down into his living room, one on the edge of my sort-of trash box facing the porthole on his front door. I even crept around the fence and clipped a couple of cameras onto his kitchen windowsill.
Twenty minutes later I sat down in front of my television with no idea what I was about to see. And I had forgotten how great that feels.
My main set is your standard fifty-inch, wall-mounted, room-dominating rectangle. I wish I could say I never really watch it, but I do. I watch it all the time. Because it’s always there. The only thing allowed to be on display, right? You can take our clutter. Our mess and our stuff. But the light-emitting rectangles will always remain. That’s been their evolutionary mechanism. To blend in with their surroundings and cozy up to our dopy notion of modern style. The bastards are probably laughing at us every time we leave the room.
At nine o’clock Billy Crystal half-opens the blinds on his kitchen window and I hit record on the master remote. An eighth of my screen comes awake and there it is: a slice of hairy midriff moving in and out of shot. I can see jars in the background and I zoom in, scanning slowly past their labels. Marmalade. Chutney. Apricots marinating in vodka. Solid continuity footage.
He goes to the front door and bends down to pick up his mail. I activate another camera and get a clean, topdown look at him sat on his haunches. In my head I hear a kind of sparse, orchestral score, all pizzicato strings and ploddings oboes. Sad. But good-natured. I’m desperate to cut to a close-up of the mail in his hands. Sheafs of unsolicited coupons and vouchers, sent by some company that bought his details off of the guy who processes his grocery orders. That would be my guess. Unfortunately none of my cameras are able to get his hands in frame.
You know what would have been ideal? A tracking shot, taking us up the street. It’s warm and leafy. Well-off people living side-by-side. Strangers to each other. A voiceover – perhaps my own – informs us that this is an area favoured by media types and young politicians. ‘Just a forty-five minute car ride from the capital,’ say the realtors, implying that it’s close enough for you and your family to drop by D.C. for a chilli dinner but sufficiently far away that you won’t have any tweakers or base-heads follow you home.
Let’s go to an establishing shot of the house. The sun is coming up. If paperboys were still a thing one would be cycling past, ringing his bell, right now. This is the home, says the voiceover, of Billy Crystal. And he is not like other people.
From one end of his hallway, through the kitchen window, we see the subject drop junk mail onto a pile which sits by the door. There are four or five unframed oil paintings propped up against the wall in a line. Billy Crystal walks past a canvas and the camera lingers on it, gradually getting tighter in. What it’s of is not clear, but the slow zoom continues anyway, like how modern directors are too afraid to do in case viewers get bored and switch over. The paint has been applied thickly. Finally, once the entire screen is occupied by its colour, we realise we’re looking at the bared teeth of some kind of mammal.
There’s not a lot of room in Billy Crystal’s house. Cupboards have stuff in them and on them. Parts of carpet have been annexed by books that never made it to shelves or clothes that didn’t merit a place in a drawer. The score becomes increasingly wistful as the camera pans across his living-room floor. It comes to a rest at the foot of a bookshelf. We pull out and see rows of magazines. Defunct publications dealing with all kinds of subjects. Information readily-summonable from any phone, tablet or integrated device.
At every juncture in history there have been stragglers, says the voiceover. Individuals who forgo the miracle of iconic technologies. Passengers on a sinking ship, politely declining a place on the lifeboats of progress. They have neither the proactive zeal of the Luddites nor the romantic urges of self-sufficient commune-dwellers. Their opting out is largely an unseen protest, registering only as a dissolving foam at the shores of human endeavour.
The sound of my own voice, bouncing off the bare walls of my home, startles me.
Billy Crystal, still in his underwear, enters the living room and we are treated to a close-up of his face. He’s eating toast. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. The skin covering his cheeks and forehead is pulled about in that way which animators have been trying and failing to emulate for decades. Viewers will be expecting the camera to cut to something else. But it doesn’t. The moment is drawn out. We are forced to question…
There’s a knock at my door. Dammit.
I go to see who it is, realising too late that I have at some point during the morning taken off my shirt and trousers. It does not matter though as it’s only Michael Douglas.
I just wondered if you were coming into work today, he asks.
No, I say. I have stuff to do.
Are you still angry about Sex Pets?
No, I say. I’m not.
There’s a moment of silence. Michael Douglas wants to tell me something. I ask what’s up. He tells me he hasn’t been paid for a while. I tell him that times are tough but Lunar New Year is right around the corner. He tells me he just checked and Lunar New Year’s not for eight months.
Look, I say, just go back to the office and see if you can’t tidy up a bit. I tell him I’m playing around with an idea and if it comes off we could both benefit.
I watch from my door as he heads back up the street. By the way he’s walking I can tell that he knows there’s nothing to tidy up in our office.
I sat down again and picked up the master remote. I tried to focus but couldn’t get back into it. Like I’d lost my place in a book. To make matters worse I could not find Billy Crystal on any of the eight cameras that were rolling. I rewound the footage a few minutes and saw him disappear down some stairs. This surprised me. Our houses are identical yet I have no basement.
I went to make myself more instant coffee, hoping that by the time I got back Billy Crystal would have reappeared. He hadn’t. I then remembered that what I was watching was lagging nine or ten minutes behind, so I held down fast-forward until satisfied that what I saw taking place on my screen amounted to a faithful relaying of the actual, present moment. My neighbour reappeared just as the footage dropped into real-time, the lurch between playback speeds momentarily making his movements appear unbearably slow.
A diploma, something science, framed and hung in the hallway, catches my eye. The voiceover points out that, like a lot of people with his background, Billy Crystal has not had a job in a long time.
At this point we’ll dredge up some library footage of scientists squirrelling away in a lab. The voiceover will give a little bit of history. Like a real documentary. The government cutting science funding. Space exploration, cancer treatment, nano-technology; just a few of the billion-dollar projects indefinitely frozen thanks to a Congressional culture addicted to quick-fixes and pandering. Maybe we’ll cut to Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, that glass citadel whose inhabitants have been gobbling up Nobel prizes faster than those sons-of-bitches at MIT can count.
The voiceover explains how initially Billy Crystal found work as a meat-substance developer for a company supplying beef substitutes to snack-food conglomerates. He quit not solely because the job was uninspiring, but also because he couldn’t square the prospect of undercutting struggling American cattle farms with his conscience.
You see, Billy Crystal is a good man. And this is a documentary about how hard it is to be a good man in Richmond, Virginia.
Another knock at my door.
For God’s sake, I yell. Can he not survive for a single afternoon without me? I pause the footage. Maybe it’s time I terminated my relationship with Michael Douglas. He’s never really wanted to raise the tone like I do. He’s a limpet.
I swing open my door and am greeted by the back of the delivery boy’s head. I blurt out a ‘thank you’ as he walks back to the road but he doesn’t turn around. Why would he? Even now I can’t remember his name. He delivers everything to everyone on this road. I bet he hates all of us.
I took the new white box inside, placed it alongside some others, and made more coffee. I couldn’t remember what I’d ordered but knew that whatever it was I certainly had ordered it. Like a lot of people I spend a significant amount of time every day browsing and bookmarking products that a piece of software has decided I might be interested in. The software is good at its job. Pillow cases with in-built speakers. Lennon-style sunglasses which can stream video. Retro staplers. Click. Just for a moment it’s nice to believe that these items will make my life easier, cleaner or cooler. Some of them do. Most of them don’t. A lot of it gets chucked away. Some of it doesn’t even get unboxed before ending up at the end of my drive.
I returned to the television, sipping coffee, to look at the figure sat waiting for me. The enthusiasm I had felt just twenty minutes ago was gone, overridden by a shiftless, caffeinated fug. That old, slow panic began to churn my guts up again, a feeling somehow heightened by the bareness of my walls. I know what the lifestyle councillors say. A clean, dynamic living space is essential to staying positive. I know they’re right. But the other day I found myself staring at the immaculate, untarnished face of my fridge and I wanted to cry, I really did.
I looked at the screen, trying to think, until the blocks of colour before my eyes fractured into their unlovable, component pixels. Despite the fact I had paused it – I remember pressing pause – the brown-pink fringes of Billy Crystal’s shoulders shivered up and then down. I waited for something to happen, another breath. None came. Then, with a tiny nod, he gestured towards the door leading down to his basement. I thought I’d imagined it but after a minute or two he did it again, like an actor on stage, prompting a colleague who’s gone blank. So I pressed play.
Blackness. A click, and then a couple of blinks before the lights come on. The subject carefully descends towards the low-angle, fish-bowl lens, running his fingers over the skin around his ribs.
While Billy Crystal does not expect to achieve immortality, says the voiceover, he fully intends to extend his life by two to three-hundred years by continually replacing his major organs before they have a chance to fail.
His basement is an Aladdin’s cave of home-brew scientific research. Shelves holding spare jars and tubing line each wall. Pages torn from text books are scattered about the laminated flooring. Sacks of pungent, high-protein cattle-feed are stacked up in the corner. There is one other room. The hum of a generator can be heard from within. The steadycam rolls forward, Billy Crystal opens the door and there we have it. The money shot. The trailer. Three pigs in a pen, skinny and stupefied under the glare of about six heaters, the type you get outside bars.
The title fades up.
The Part-Pig Man.
The dangers associated with xenotransplants are numerous and grave, says the voiceover. Hyperacute rejection, cellular malfunction, delayed vascular thrombosis. To Billy Crystal, these are all risks worth taking.
Close up of a pig’s mouth. Its chewing on rotten apricots. Bowls, plates and glasses are piled up in a nearby sink. From this angle, in this light, they look dirtier than they are. It’s effective. We can maybe cut to a fly on a fork or something, even. Shoot it in post.
A scientist – or failing that one of those cosmetic surgeons who like going on television – explains that a successful xenograft has never been officially documented in the United States. He says that although Billy’s logic is theoretically sound, self-directed genetic corruption – even in the event of the patient’s survival – would almost certainly produce too many dreadful side effects to ever be considered a ‘success’.
Overlay some old photographs of bodies lying on laboratory tables. Doesn’t have to be accurate. It just has to look right.
Billy Crystal believes he’s cracked it, says the voiceover. He has lived for the last four years with half an inch of pork belly – the equivalent of six rashers of bacon – sewn into the back of each leg. He admits that his body reacted badly to the alien tissue at first but insists that the pig cells were ‘pacified’ through exercise, a balanced diet and Chinese antibiotics. Cut to Billy’s purpled calves. The left one has a cluster of scabs along the bottom, like wet clumps of rice.
We’ve built up to the inevitable. No more teasing, it’s time to talk to him. Let’s find out why he lives like this. Hear him justify his actions. Find out what’s been pushed in and what’s been pulled out through those small, dark scars, neatly arranged like a campaign of noughts and crosses played out across his flanks.
I ask him if he wouldn’t mind sitting down next to the animals, or even to get in among them while talking. He laughs. It’s surprisingly girlish. A giggle. The pigs recognise it, it upsets them, and one scrambles up the side of the pen. It slouches there, looking at me, front legs dangling over the barrier. I notice that its bedding is made from dozens of flattened, white boxes.
Hold on, I say. Let me just set this up right.
I climb over and kick my way through all the crap in the pen. The garbage and the boxes wouldn’t read well onscreen. I needed to pile it up just so. The pigs stand and watch. The backdrop was still off so I tried to balance three or four white boxes, and fashion them into the sort of cardboard outcrop which could look dramatic in the right light. Leaflets, flimsy translucent manuals, fell onto my feet like a paper snowdrift. Fussy diagrams demonstrating how to install an invisible, integrated sound system or the step-by-step process of syncing your trainers to your drum machine. I pull my leg out from a pile of pig shit, unearthing a blu-tacked scrap of some crayon drawing. The colourful waxy scrawl of a little girl, stood outside her home, holding hands with her daddy stands out against the whiteness and then it’s gone. That’s mine, I want to say. That belongs to me. But I don’t say it. Because it isn’t mine. Not any more. Billy Crystal is still laughing.
Now what? I say. How can I be like you?
The title fades up. And I can’t bear to look.