The Vanity Routines presents people who, seemingly dead and definitely dead, tired of life but incapable of living, voice their concerns in short stories at once baroque and minimalistic. Gray eminences, they emerge out of night, dread, and legend, to deliver their last lines. Seven exists, and as many broken arias — these are characters for whom vanity has become a constant and dying routine.
Meet the dare-devil, who contemplates various burial customs floating in a barrel headed toward a water fall. Encounter Larry Lazarus, recalled from death; Miss Clock in vain awaiting her lover; and an anonymous Luciferian tempter, who proposes to consider life a walk on a tight-rope forming a circle. And greet, finally, W. J. M. Bottle, a.k.a. Mister Memory, who, in 1904, sold his brain to a team of physicians in Connecticut; an errant batch of spirits in the process of disengaging themselves from existential restrictions; and Johnny the Baptist, who, presented on a platter, expresses regret over the things he did not accomplish while still alive and kicking.
Mythical or historical, invented or real, the book’s characters all reason in what D. H. Lawrence once termed “the spirit of disintegration.” The light shed by these texts on human existence is as bleak as the pale cast of after-thought. In a time when everything may be mastered except death, they are bold enough to sing hymns to disappearance. The Vanity Routines offers seven cases of metaphysical slapstick, aimed at those willing to put on a brave face in what remains a fatal affair.
Headland? No, deadland, more likely. Shattered. Devastated. Out. But once upon a time . . . oh, yes. Across land and over water — from pole to pole — like a serpent biting its own tail. Everything under control. Truly an Atlas. The globe as if molded on my shoulders. Skull held high, cap nicely tilted, striking a noble pose . . . Ah, those were the days. At a slight angle with infinity. Very becoming. Now I’m just sitting here, still as sleep. Won’t move, if I can help it. Cap on the floor. The orb buried in my hands. Some deposition. My last capital, truth to tell. It won’t get me far, though. At best a one-way ticket. Thither but hardly back. No, never back, not in this life. North of the future, more like it. That great abstraction. First pale, now bony. Soon white, however, then out. For now and ever after. No company, no comfort. The last trip, if you wish. Zero baggage. Or, well, this load, then. Two kilos to carry. Or to be exact: 69 ounces. That is to say: 19.6 hectograms. No small object, if you stop to consider it. The doctors didn’t think so once they did. Stopped and considered. To the tune of 2.000 pounds it changed hands. A handsome melody, that, in those days. Still is. But I won’t nod my head to it. Nor shake it. I’m wiser now. Facing the music, finally. They pressed the money into my palms, these palms here, smiled broadly if cryptically, then bid their hasty farewell. Cultivated men. No question about it. Bailey, Craford, Osian, and . . .Carlton, it was. Carlton Sr. They paid, looking like sphinxes, then left. No bargaining. Men to my liking. Honor to them. Content to obtain the article once I’d be off and gone. “Not a day before, Mr. Bottle, not even half a one.” What the deal was about? These hemispheres here, of course. The matter in my hands. Two kilos of nerves, cells, and water. My gray capital. Seems a bit eccentric, perhaps. But consider it. What did I have to loose? It didn’t matter to the stars, at any rate. And if you believe those who gibed at my posterity, I had already lost any claim to it. Now it’s clear, though. I’m getting the last laugh. All buyers have died. One after the other. There’s nobody to request the article. Not having changed hands yet, the brain will remain in mine. 2.000 pounds in the pocket and as many grams still between the ears. The skull planted on the shoulders and not under an arm, eh? Things might be worse, yes? No. They mightn’t. Not now. Nor will they ever be. May as well tell you that right away. Before there are any more wrongheaded ideas. I’m no longer given to shows of stupefying. None of that tam-ta-ram, you-thought-this-but-I’ll-show-you-that, surprise-surprise business. Just straight to the acme, peak, summit . . . what is it . . . core, I meant to say. So here it is, then, the tip of the tale, the point around which this story swivels: the great head where once I toiled is all mockery now. Whatever the losses still to be faced, this state of affairs will be lost on no one. I’m shattered. That’s the truth. Topsy-turvy, I thought at the time, not knowing better. Selling the brain against an advance — like trading your soul to the hairy fellow. Something along those lines. Why should you, etc. Worries of this nature. What feeble fortification. Presently worth a glacial laugh at best. No more. Less, in fact, likely. But back then, that’s the sort of argument I engaged in. Hard to believe. How weak in kind it was. Rectitude like pudding. Thinking again, I reasoned: well, Bottle, really, does it matter? That was a good one. I had my moments. Matter that doesn’t matter. I like that. Unfazed, however, I continued: You get to keep it for your bout of being. Later, in the big Hereafter, will you be in a position to care? Close the deal. Go straight to the top. That one was even better. Touché. Capital is capital, I agreed, like some slapstick Faust . . . so I went, oh Lord, ahead. Proud as ever. It was vanity, all right. Displaying my bloated ego. But then again, I was the name on everybody’s lips. “The man who cannot forget.” In those days, it would have been against my nature not to make use of my assets. Skull skills. I cherished them. No less than 100% information retrieval. Fool-proof memory. Few mortals could claim as much. And in such a weighty setting? Even less. I agreed, thus. Proof of a fool, indeed. Got what I asked for. A can of worms if there ever was one. It’s easy to understand, though, why the doctors dug into their wallets once they’d concluded the examination. It’s common knowledge, isn’t it, that the cerebrum weighs approximately 200 grams in an infant and reaches about five times as much in an adult. Couvier’s brain was a wet and warm waddle of 1.7 kilos, whereas Napoleon, grand in everything but height, possessed a central unit of fifty grams less. Charles Peace, the criminal who despite his name kept half of England in fear, was aided in his raids by a gray mass of some 1.6 kilos. In other words: mine was of historic proportions. No denying that. A brick of a brain. True top-of-the-line gravitas. Size is not all, though, I pointed out to mssrs doctors. Still I made them pay for the pleasure. One pound per gram. Subsequent revelations have shown that I may’ve made myself an extra pound or so on particularly important grams. But at the time I hadn’t dwelt on the subject. Later on, of course, I got an insider’s view of it. You move through life, don’t you? Whether you want it or not, things get stuck in your yarn. “Data,” that goes without saying. Like different terms for snow, for example. Or the name of particular ribs, of historic women, and the like. Ah, what’s not in a name. The current price on, well, apples or some such. Or the distance between Nau and Nevers. The true contents of Pandora’s box. Or for that matter: the number of letters in the Holy Book.That sort of thing. Consciousness is a sieve through which the world is being sifted. It all comes down to the mesh. Take mine. Some specimen. Extra fine. Exceptional tautness. Wouldn’t loose a microbe if it tried. A true work of art. Or, well, it was. Now’s a different story. I grant you that. Unorthodox even. But I’ll return to this later. One thing at a time. That’s what I’ve always said. One thing at a time and each learnt well. Already at a tender age, then, I made my great discovery. Revelation is, perhaps, a better designation. Let’s just say finding. Assume I came across a text on enclosed parks or a eulogy to Lady W., the undeniable. At whatever moment, after whatever time might have elapsed, I could recall the works. Names, aspects, details . . . even the texture and tendency of the recollection itself. I only needed to whisper, “Open, Sesame,” for the quaintest items to emerge from the gates of memory. My head was a treasure trove and I was the wandering calendar, a banker of recollections, oh, the one and only timetable in flesh and blood. Some even hailed me as King Recall. The container entertainer. That was taking categories a bit far, I thought. Mister Memory was a nomination more to my liking. Rather mellifluous, don’t you think? I even had the monogram embroidered on shirt breasts and in hat linings. Truly dignified it looked. M. M.: a little wink that ‘much more’ could be found in the coffers at my disposal. Oh, those were the days, all right. Solid holdings. Stunning spread. Stature unrivaled. Data by the barrel-full. Marvelous inclusiveness. Nothing was lost on me. I may’ve had no more than an inkling of the true extent of my knowledge. Yet I only needed to begin my routine for patterns and particulars to assemble like dust collect around the legs of a chair. “Putting my mind to it,” I dubbed it, summoning those preciously hoarded antecedents. “Thought images” then helped me compose the data into constellations. Thus, at once, I was able to determine the distance between two circumstances, say, or the depth of a source, the angle of a particular course of events. What does knowledge matter, when you have recourse to such information? This was the geometry of the vanished. The true fabrication of what had ceased, died, disappeared. Spectral analysis, indeed. All dots, lines, and connections. Untainted as a virgin’s conscience. The perfect past. Once the formations had been created, they acquired a spirit of their own. Hovering gently as clouds of minuscule matter in slim, silvery light. Cogital mobiles assembled of planes and particles glued together in mid-air. All kinds of shapes, really. My skull was as accommodating as an urn. No biases, there. Whether long or lank, black or bulky, it found room for everything. When I think of the things buried within . . . The cranium itself may’ve been a thin wall surrounding the core of the matter. But talk about different worlds. Inside, everything was as pristine as on the seventh day. A clearly ordered plethora of folds and layers, mnemonic plaits and plies, sheaths of sheerest delicacy. All tucked away, yet instantly retrievable. The data would unfold from pockets of sweetest nullity, like tiny trinkets of origami conjured out of phantomatic paper containing nothing but void and surface. How I thrived in those moments. I would relish the effusions of fact; luxuriate in their abundance of detail; savor the plenty of particulars; wallow in the sheer munificence of memory’s velvety wealth. For the pure delectation of the audience, I might even call forth closed cases, missed moments, godforsaken creatures and conceptions. Staging small scenes clothed in the shifting characteristics required. Eras and epochs, boxers, mobsters, and regents, customs, manners, and compartments long since lost to indifference or collective amnesia . . . nothing was alien to me. I could secure whatever props were needed for the drama from my well-stocked mental — depots, I suppose is the right word. That’s where I kept the attributes. I looked upon each new item of information as a meal. Some might be elaborate dinners comprising five, seven courses. Others resembled quick bites, episodic snacks, mouthfuls of strange but enticing sensations. Still I examined and digested each one of their properties with the same appetite. Mister Memory, the jester digester, the magnanimous metabolizer. Your one and only truly golden retriever. Treat your brain like an embouchement, I used to claim, and you’ll have only the bones of eternity to worry about. Mine had good canine teeth, all right. It devoured most things without further — thought, as it were. Oh, nothing like now. Although the memory volume steadily increased, the gray matter itself didn’t expand. This in contrast to my bodily framework which, when given nourishment, has a tendency to grow. I could have my apple and eat it. Remarkable, it was. What didn’t go on in there, in the abdomen of recollection. At times, it sounded like smooth sheets falling on coffin lids. A discrete rustle of finest fabric, signaling that a sensitive date had joined a related one. On other occasions, it resembled more the way gusts of wind pierce the night. Turning it brown and hollow as a tooth. That tended to happen when a set of circumstances had become incontrovertible. All these arrangements had their peculiar features, however, forming a landscape without shadows. A kingdom of fixed facts and firm figures. Everything as fresh as fruit meat. That’s the way I liked it. This was my skullscape and I — well, I was its eminence. Until one fine, miserable day, that is. Then, out of the gray, certain data no longer allowed themselves to be arranged into forms and figures. Instead they dispersed in patterns of softest panic. Insect-quick ghosts of gesture. Febrile and flickering. Stealth shapes of bony-colored static. On one occasion, it even took me ten minutes or more to find the answer to a single inquiry. Much longer, at any rate, than ever before. That’s when I realized trouble was ahead. Whatever I tried to retrieve, I saw only the train of thought moving through my skull. Oh, I should have turned away from it all. Then and there. Away from the thought, away from the head. Let them work it out among themselves. But I didn’t. How would that look? Instead I went through the standard movements. My retrieval routine. Adding feature to feature. Hoping to create, in this manner, the conditions required for the proper image to emerge. Meanwhile I embellished a little story. This in order to prevent the audience from sensing doubt or danger. The trick is to make the digression attractive enough that their attention isn’t vitiated. At the same time it must remain sufficiently vague in contour to allow it to merge with the picture that slowly is gathering in front of your inner vision. In this way, the side track will ultimately become the main trail. Thank heaven the conceit still worked. Once more I could bask in the applause which always has been the elixir of my life. That soft ripple of thunder so similar to laughter or the pouring of liquid. But afterward I realized there was a price to pay. Long and threadlike, an ache twisted its way through my skull. I was forced to seek rest. Ease my pain. Please my brain. Things were beginning to turn foul, I sensed. Today I know this was the beginning of the end. I had crossed a threshold. And not only that. It seemed my memory had reached a certain level of satiation. With it came . . . cogital vermin? parasites? mnemonic demons? I don’t know what to call the specters which now began to gather in folds and crannies, filling fissures and crevices, niches, recesses, and nooks. The abundance of data gave me less and less room in which to maneuver. Wherever my mind turned, it hit a fact, knocked down a figure. Depositions started to slip and skid, like loose cargo in the belly of a boat. Djinn-like contours in wan taints. The blanched back of shadows, really. They moved about with the skittish certainty of the blind. Hybrid formations that rose their sullen heads, twisted in the light, then faded into an increasingly whitish void. There was no telling what next. I suppose this is what’s called critical mass. The point beyond which control is merely a chimera. If that. Less. Things were moving, for sure. Slowly out of proportion. Gradually out of mind. Now there was this pallid quality to every retrieval. As if discharged from a pale clutter of movements to which I had no conscious access. My mind was turning blank and bulky. What was worse, the distortion seemed to grow, like a blurry vacuum inside my confusion. A little later, I failed again to create the proper backdrop for a particular formation. Some kind of extruding swelling didn’t fit within the horizon I’d managed to compose. Things just clogged up, like a shower drain clotted with hair, soap, and the variegated sheddings of skin. A worm-like affair. The only thing I could remember was having retrieved something similar before. Naturally I kept my mouth running, while silently doing my wicked best to master the situation. But each time I turned the plane and thought that, at last, I had created the right configuration, the tube-shaped formation pierced the thin membrane of my fabrication. It seemed impossible to perceive its proper relation to the main body of thought. I was about to give up. Cease. Retreat. Ignore. Then it came to me that what fell outside the picture perhaps was part of it. The form itself, that is, might in fact be the content I was trying to retrieve. The routine took considerably longer than usual. Suspecting it would cost me the audience’s suspension of disbelief, I transformed the digression into some general reflection on storage facilities and cranial cargo. But at last . . . eureka. It was like lifting a film out of its emulsion and wait for the oily coat dripping between index and thumb to dry — only to see, suddenly, a hand lifting an invertebrate slip of squares capturing another hand lifting . . . and so on. I had no time to shut the sequence out of my mind. That’s when I realized hope was in vain. My skull was part of the problem, not of the solution. The ensuing headache was indescribable. I could hear a rippling sound from inside as if an apple had been cracked in two. “Ses-,” I had time to think before all turned blank. Then, later, I don’t know when, I came to life again. Here. In this place. Or space. I don’t know which’s more accurate. Skull still around, though. Spilled into my hands. What next?, I thought. Getting yourself together? It’s said of people paralyzed in an arm or a leg that after a while they’re no longer able to perceive of their limb as part of themselves. “Take this, too,” a patient here once cried, pointing to his lifeless arm as the nurse removed his breakfast tray. But what should the person do who has sold the contents of his cranium and spent the money? Argue that it means nothing? To whom? I’m merely asking. I couldn’t very well leave, could I? Just stand up and depart? From my brain? I was stuck, all right. Hands full. No abdication for King Recall. As if this wasn’t bad enough, there was now the added knowledge that I could no longer submerge myself in a world of thinking my own. Ever since the sale, I had cogitated on dispensation. Who could seriously blame me if my thoughts began to behave, well — like renegades, shall we say? My container had turned into an occupied territory. So much for freedom of thought. Terra alienata. When I fathomed that this once great gray matter continued to do its damnedest to think also this very thought . . . oh, sweet grief. Topsy-turvy, all right. Bailey, Craford, and the others could have had their article. Forthwith. Not much promise in what they’d purchased. Utter hotchpotch, to be honest, cranial clapdash. But instead we remained here. Me and my skull. “Brain wash,” was the word. I got the point, though. Wind down. Hand it over. Unburden yourself. Since then, people have come and gone — and the doctors, as I said, have departed one after the other. Yet the truth must be told: the solitude has done me good. Lotion for the soul, it has been, ointment for my musings. And the surrounding insulation . . . some sort of cork, I think. No gratuitous disturbances. All quiet. Just the two of us. Strict orders not to absorb unnecessary impressions. As if I had any desire for that. Enough with memories, so to speak. Enough of them, too. No new data, if I had my way. But after a while, I got it in my mind to get myself together again, didn’t I? Set the record straight. Tell you the story. Have a crack at it. Vanity will be the last to fail you, won’t it? I ought to have bored a hole in the skull instead. Like that enfant terrible in Amsterdam. Joe Huges, wasn’t it? Not standing the pressure, he put a drill to his forehead. A tiny porthole to release contaminated brain liquid. A window of opportunity, no? That might have done the trick . . . some honest airing out . . . then it’d have been possible to look at things anew again. Depressurized, but still intact. Fresh as on the day of creation. Instead I had to spill the beans. What a routine. I can feel my mind going now. The thoughts are floating out. No avoiding it. Flotsam and jetsam, all. Oh, I should never have started it. How much can you recall before you realize your memory is taking you in a circle, closing in like a noose? A serpent biting its own tail, huh? It’s more like a worm chewing on its own rear. Ultimately it has to sink its teeth into the cortex. That’s then the end of it. Your recollections have retrieved the space needed to produce them. Form truly becoming content . . . And yourself? Introspective? Outside looking out, more like it. No flask will ever be great enough to hold such an affair. Not even this one. Small wonder there was another crack. Second thoughts . . . that’s what does it in the end, isn’t it? Thinking twice. Coming again. That sort of thing. A can of worms, really. A bin of djinns. Once the cap is off, there’s no peace anymore. How could I possibly enjoy the last laugh? In a situation such as this? You think you master the past . . . but you don’t, do you? Formerly its custodian, you’re now its hostage. No longer retrieving, but to be retrieved. No longer composing, but decomposed . . . King Recall, eh? King Oblivion, more like it. Down and out. Cracked and shattered. KO. One broken Bottle from Memory Lane . . . Didn’t I tell you? Some deposition. Discharged.
Born in 1875 in Newham, Kent, W. J. M. Bottle toured Europe and the Americas under the stage name of “Mr. Datas.” Possessing the gift of absolute recollection, he performed stunning feats of information retrieval during question-and-answer sessions throughout the Western world. In the 1920’s, Bottle sold his brain to a team of doctors in Connecticut. The author of an autobiography as well as a manual in mnemotechnics, he features as “Mr. Memory” in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. His resemblance to the person depicted here is, at best, sporadic.
“This is an exquisite little book about the art of disappearance. . . . His style is singular, at times so precise in its use of metaphors that cold chills are sent down my Swedish spine. It goes straight to the central nerve system!” — Märit Aronsson, Upsala Nya Tidning
“Fioretos’ texts recall Samuel Beckett’s monological dramas, but are considerably more lighthearted and elegant . . . The language has luster and seems newly polished; words and sentences are in good balance, the spirits high . . . There is song inside my head.” — Lars-Olof Franzén, Dagens Nyheter
“Here is pragmatism, beauty, and clandestine sensitivity, even a sort of black humor as a consequence of the elegantly teasing tone and the absurd situations that are gradually being uncovered.” — Thomas Götselius, Göteborgstidningen
“Fioretos is an extremely conscious writer, whose control over his means of expression is precisely so dictatorial and solemn as is necessary for great comedy to arise. Like Buster Keaton among collapsing houses, Fioretos strolls around in that apocalyptic pandemonium we call the moment of death while carrying a neutral expression on his face, which of course becomes all the more comic the higher the drama of the physical situation.” — Ragnar Strömberg, Bonniers Litterära Magasin