Charcoal [an excerpt]

In Gupter Puncher/Oli Johns on April 18, 2010 at 1:57 pm


[This is the first 11 pages of my new novel. It’s a lonely piece, but hopefully not miserable. If it is miserable then just stop reading and click onto something else. Tomomi at the HK film festival maybe? If you get to the end and like it, please write a comment and tell me why. If you think it’s shit, tell me why. Thanks.]

Why Peter O’ Toole let go. Why Bodhi went back into the storm…

I watch Michael Portillo fake-dying on TV.

It’s almost 2am and he’s trying to find the perfect way to execute prisoners.

My housemate is asleep, and I don’t have to work until late the next day, so I stay up and stretch out on the couch and focus on the screen.


For a few weeks, I’ve been interested in suicide.

Not for myself, but the idea of it.

At least I don’t think it’s for myself.

But it would be nice to know there’s a way…that there’s a way to do it, if things really were that bad.

Something non violent, non painful.

Some kind of gas, maybe?


On screen Portillo talks to a guy in one of the US State prisons.

They talk about the electric chair as a humane way to die.

Apparently, it’s not.

Does the prisoner have any sense of agony?’ Portillo asks.

Some,’ the guys says.

How much pain exactly?’



After electric chairs he moves on to lethal injections and I sit up a little as I figure this one might be the one, but it’s quickly dismissed.

Some critics argue, and point to previous executions as proof, that the lethal injection paralyses the prisoner but doesn’t stop the pain. In fact, it merely impedes their ability to let anyone know they’re in pain. So they suspect, or at least some do, that the prisoner could be experiencing up to seven minutes of the most excruciating agony imaginable.’


Next is hanging.

There is no hope for this one.

The idea of hanging from a rope makes me feel a little sick. I think of Saddham, of the murderer watched by Truman Capote, of John Cusack in that frontier film where he rustles cattle.

Rustles cattle? Is that right?

It doesn’t sound right.

Portillo watches from a distance as an effigy of himself is dropped from a ladder a few metres up.

He winces as the head rolls off and smacks hard onto the ground.

I grip the cushion tight.


Oxygen deprivation.

Portillo sits in a room which is slowly deprived of air. Or the air is being re-mixed…with a higher count of some other gas. Nitrous oxide, maybe?

Another guy sits in there with him wearing a mask and asking questions to test his sanity.

Or not sanity, but comprehension? Cognition?

A test to see if he’s okay.

Portillo does well at first, answering the first four pitches correctly.

Then he falters.

He gets one wrong.

He starts slurring.

Then he talks gibberish.

I sit up and watch him struggle to lift his arms.

The narration on screen tells me he’s dying, that if he doesn’t put the mask on within the next twenty seconds he’ll be gone.

Will they really kill Portillo?

He laughs as the other guy tries to put the mask on.

He looks so happy.

He’s laughing.

The guy gets the mask on and Portillo returns to…to what? Life?

The narration comes on again and tells us Portillo was seconds away from death yet didn’t care one bit.


Portillo goes back to one of the US prison wardens he interviewed at the start. He tells him that a special mix of gases is a more humane way for the prisoner to die.

The warden spits back.

They don’t deserve humane, Sir. It’s a punishment…’

Portillo struggles to argue back.

But don’t you think…’

‘…and that’s what it should be, no mistake. They deserve a little piece of hell for what they…the evil they’ve done.’

The programme ends undecided.

I stand up and go to my room. I’m undecided too.


A week passes.

It’s still cold, but it’ll be hot again soon.

I don’t feel too good about this so I tell myself I’m gonna write something while it’s cold.

I sit on my bed with my duvet wrapped around me and think of a subject.

The pen is in my mouth, the notepad is waiting.

I’m going to write about philosophy.

I’m gonna think it out and write about it.

But the words are strange.

Not strange, but difficult.

Not difficult, but…

I don’t understand philosophy.

I don’t think anyone else does either.

Do they?


I get off the bus with the huge rucksack on my back carrying the book by Arguedas, the book by Burroughs, the book by Deleuze.

The library is just ahead. There are schoolkids in green going up the stairs.

I follow them.

Inside, I walk up to the check-in desk…there’s no queue and I think about stopping at the queue point and getting the books out, but I don’t, I keep going until I’m at the desk, and then I put down the huge rucksack and fish for the books.

Burroughs comes out first.

The Soft Machine. Not the best, but the only one they had. No Naked Lunch or any of the other stuff he did.

I can’t remember the titles.

Maybe I never knew them?

I look at the Soft Machine and think, renew or return.

Burroughs…I read a few lines…’running out of veins’ was a good line, but there wasn’t much else.

I hand it to the smiling lady behind the desk and say ‘return.’

Next is Arguedas. ‘The fox from up above and the fox from down below.’

I renew it for the diary entries and the suicide.

Then Deleuze…

In my notebook…

The concepts – Deterritorialisation.




Deterritorialisation…I think I’ve got that one. A man is forced into another environment and loses some of himself…is that right?

Pac-man trapped in mazes. He’s defined by….what?

Becoming – Something is one thing for a short time then changes…no fixed self.

The coffee cup is only a coffee cup for a short time, then it’s broken, then it’s back in the earth.

Rhizomes – what the fuck’s a rhizome? Not branches…roots? Roots of thought?

Check again later.

Duration – I don’t get this one at all.

But fuck it, keep writing, Oli. Keep fucking writing.

It’s not gonna come…it’s gone away, and it’s not gonna come…


I sit on my bed at home listening to Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah in my head, and looking at Deleuze again…the pages on duration.

I’ve already looked at Rhizomes and I think I understand it a little better now…it was the roots of thought…the thought springs up, the new self springs up without precedent…the new environment creates a new self, no branches from previous history.

I shift on the bed.

At least that’s what I think it means.

I still can’t really picture it clearly in my head.

But duration…

I can’t get it at all.

Memory is not stored in the brain, but in a vast virtual pool of the past.’

[Deleuze, riffing on Bergson.]

I repeat it in my head several times, but it doesn’t get any clearer.

Where’s this pool then?

How can there be a pool? What, we all have access to it?

I shift the other way on the bed.

I read some more, some references to Proust and sense memory, but it complicates things even more. How can that be linked? How can it not be in the brain?


I get up and go into the living room and say a few things to my housemate, who’s watching something on TV, something about a group of people and that guy…that guy from Shakespeare in Love, and the other one with Heather Graham…the one where he fucks her against the wall…Joseph Fiennes, that guy…and he’s talking to some Chinese guy about group consciousness and the world passing out.

I sit down and watch for a while, not really thinking of anything.


The next day I don’t do much.

I go to the school and I’m a little late, running from the bus and getting to the school six minutes past the bell.

No one’s really pissed off about it, and I don’t think any of my salary will get docked, but I’m a little short with my first student anyway. She can’t hold her pencil properly, and I mutter something to the wall.

She can never hold her pencil properly. She holds it like a knife.

For the rest of the lesson I watch her hold the pencil and wonder if it’d be possible to push her far enough that she would stab me.

By lunch I’m thinking of something else.

During lunch, I’m thinking of who I’ll have to see that day. I don’t really want to see anyone. My phone rings twice and I ignore it.

In the last two lessons of the day I have four year olds, so we sit and play the rubber game.

There are four rubbers and we take it in turns to throw them into the tissue box.

One of the students cheats, and it pisses me off.

I call her a cheat.

In the last thirty minutes or so of the last lesson I feel anxious. I don’t know why, but I don’t wanna meet anyone after work.

I have to meet them though. At least for a little while.

But I don’t want to.

I really don’t want to.


On the bus I think of a thousand different things before coming back to Deleuze.




And then Arguedas and his suicide.

The bus goes up the road and into Hung Hom and then into the tunnel.

I try not to think about this.

I’m aware that I’m trying not to think about it.




Arguedas…he knew he was gonna kill himself. He started the book, but he knew he was gonna kill himself. How did he know he’d have the guts to do it?

Outside the window I notice the tunnel walls. Up ahead there is no sign of the exit, and behind there is no longer an entrance.



Fucking Arguedas…

I put my thumb in my mouth and chew the nail.


I get back home and I’m thinking of Deleuze.

I thought I knew what rhizomes were and what duration was all about, but it’s gone again. I can never keep it there.

I lie down on the bed and repeat to myself again and again…





But I don’t get any further…


In the bath I think of the same things I usually think of when I’m in the bath.



The friends I had a year ago.

I put my thumb in my mouth.

I bite at the wrinkles.

They weren’t real friends…they were bastards.

It wasn’t my fault.

I was unwell, they knew that.

They’re too simple to get it. Wong Dillon talked about depression like he knew it, but he never knew it. Hang yourself from the fucking living room light, huh? Fuck you, you don’t know anything.

I’ll show you real pain.

I’ll show you real fucking crisis.

I turn over and close my eyes. The water rises up to my lips.

You don’t have a fucking clue. None of you did…

I put my head under the water and come back up almost straight away.

There’s no one to hold me under.

I sit up and splash some water on my chest. It’s warm, not hot.

This is bullshit.

It’s not bad anymore.

It hasn’t been bad for ages. Has it?

I think back and note a couple of times when it was quite bad, like the other day in the classroom, and another time before that when I was in the cinema and there wasn’t any air-con and I sat there praying for the film to be pathetic and unemotional so I’d be able to get out of there in one piece…but apart from those, no, it wasn’t that bad.

I pick up the shampoo and rub it over me.

Shut the fuck up, you fucking depressive…

I slap myself in the face.

You’re out of the fucking woods.

You were out of the fucking woods ages ago…so what’s this? You like this?

I laugh and splash more water on my chest.

No one likes a depressive.

I’m not a depressive.

I’m a positive. A positivist?

I bite the wrinkles on my finger again.

Isn’t that something to do with science? A positivist?

I think of science and trees and people measuring a forest with a tape measure and then more people measuring an ice cap, and then people in spacesuits measuring the whole planet.

I think of one guy in a white coat reporting his findings.

He’s in a room full of cameras, a room full of faces.

He speaks to them and tells them what they’ve found, but the words aren’t really words, and they repeat themselves and don’t really make any kind of sense…

And then he’s nervous.

Then he can’t speak…

I bite the nail on the end of my thumb.

I don’t feel good.


The next few weeks pass quickly.

I think of Deleuze on the bus and in the classrooms, and try to figure out what duration means, but whenever I try to think that way I switch. I think of other philosophers instead. I think of Camus and that book. I think of what he said about suicide.

No one ever killed themselves for the ontological argument.’

Whenever I think of this I always end up thinking of someone else killing themselves.

I go to work and teach the same students I teach every other week, and play the rubber game and feel generally okay about everything.

But I always come back to Camus and the suicide.

And it’s always someone else who’s doing it.

And I’m the rescuer…the impossible rescuer…


After a while I take Deleuze back to the library and take out Camus.

I re-read what I’ve read before, but I don’t get very far into it. I never get far into philosophy. Twenty pages maybe, and then I hit a wall.

At home, on my bed, staying out of the living room where my housemate’s making a phonecall, I think about whether or not it’s my lack or theirs.

The words are difficult.

I can’t get any context for them.

The guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Camus doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

I go out for a walk and think about it some more, but don’t make much progress. I can feel that it’s not entirely my lack, and there’s some credit in the idea of reading twenty pages and then forming your own ideas, but is that accurate?

I look at some of the people I walk past, and wonder if they’re reading anything.

They’re reading nothing.

They’re reading gossip mags.

They don’t think.

They don’t even have a brain.

There’s a gerbil in their head, running circles, reading fucking gossip mags.

I see a guy in glasses who looks exactly like the last guy I saw.

They’re all clones.

All got the same face.

I’m fucking racist.

Am I racist?

I’m not fucking racist.

I walk onto a narrow stretch of pavement and an old couple are coming the other way so I smile and let them past. I even move out onto the road.

I’m not fucking racist.

But they do look the same.

They don’t look the same, but those two guys, they looked the same. I didn’t imagine it, it’s true.

I remember back home.

Ron and me and Parker getting into Parker’s car, and Ron asking me if I was gonna try and get myself a nice little nip girl.

I remember my mum asking me if I wanted to go to the chinky for dinner.

Chinky Charlie’s, she said.

Or Charlie Chinky.

I look back at the faces.

There’s a young couple walking past me. The girl is pretty, the guy is not.

I’m better than him.

I come from racism.

In my quiet moments, I’m racist.

At home, when she’s not there, I say some horrible shit.

I say, Chinky.

Chinko, fucking Chink.

I walk further, turning back into my estate.

The security guard sitting under the umbrella by the taxi rank smiles at me, unaware that I’m racist.

I smile back and point to my building.

I’m not racist.

It’s just…I don’t know what it is. Madness?

I say Chinky, but I don’t mean it.

Everyone’s equal.

I can’t even speak the language.

I’m the lesser one.

They can speak two languages, I can’t.

And how do I know what they’re talking about anyway? They could be talking about philosophy and Camus and culture…

There are places like that here.

I’ve been to places like that here.

The culture isn’t great.

But they try.

They’re trying.

I scratch my head and see a guy walking a little further ahead with a pretty girl. The guy is laughing and kissing her on the cheek.

They don’t try, not really.

There’s no culture.

I speak a language and a half.

I’m not less than them.

At least I think. They don’t think.

It’s better to think fully in one language than think nothing in two.

They can’t even speak English anyway.

And they only say the same few fucking words in Cantonese.


Ho fan.

Ho Goi.

Where’s the fucking variety?

They don’t think about anything.


I lie in bed and try to remember what I was thinking of before.

The thing about Camus and…

He talked about suicide being the only question we ever need to ask, and the only one we need to answer.

I think about Arguedas and his suicide.

There was no talking him out of it, was there?

Was he resolute every step of the way?

I turn on my side and look at the clock.

No, he laid it out in the diary but that didn’t mean he had to keep to it. No, he could’ve edited, he could’ve changed the book.

But he was so sure.

He knew he was going to kill himself.

How can you know you’re going to kill yourself?


I go to the kitchen and wait for the kettle to boil so I can make a cup of tea.

As I wait, I mumble to myself that I hate philosophy, and that I’m better than any of those fuckers will ever be.


Back on the bed, I return to pretty much the same thoughts as before, and pretty much the same track.




What do I know about suicide?

It comes to me that the only thing I know about it is what I’ve read in books and what I’ve thought of doing to myself.

But I’ve never tried to kill myself.

I love life.

I would never kill myself.

I’m stronger than the rest of them…

No, I’m jealous…

I don’t think it’s jealousy, is it?

I want to beat them to it.

I want to have stronger depressions?

I don’t like it when someone kills themselves and I’m still here.

Who’s done that?

I can’t think of anyone so I go back to the suicides I can remember.

There was the girl I met online. She said she had tried to kill herself three times. She wrote a book about the last attempt, and at the end the main character let himself burn to death.

But she’s still alive.

How can you fail three times?

I never told her this, but I know she never really wanted to die.


Another week passes.

At work, on a Wednesday, I’m sitting in a classroom, bored and thinking of random things, a connection of thoughts which lead to Deleuze and Bergson and duration.

Fucking duration.

I still don’t get it, and since I took the book back to the library I’m even further from getting it, so instead I think of time passing, and the idea of the week I’m in passing, and what it means to live within a week.

It’s time, but time isn’t really anything.

Time isn’t really anything.’

I say it out loud, to the student.

Time isn’t really anything.

The student shakes his head.

Is it?’ I ask.



I look away from him and he goes back to his work, and I look out the window and out onto the street where some schoolkids in blue are smoking and pushing each other around.

Time isn’t really anything.

It’s too simple.

Too fucking easy.

What is duration?


A month passes and I take Camus back to the library and take out some Evelyn Waugh and then some Wang Shuo, and I half-read them during the month, but mostly, I’m distracted.

Mostly, I’m trying to fuck a seventeen year old I met online.

  1. Great beginning – I find I’m getting into the story quicker than Benny Platonov. I was gripped by your account of the execution debate, although initially a bit puzzled because I hadn’t seen the Portillo programme and wondered if you’d invented it. But then the horror of those images made me read on.

    I really want to read more of this. It’s as sharp as a razor. It’s going to be your best work yet.

  2. Portillo and his programme are real. I think most people won’t know who he is. Though I guess it’s not that important if they do or not.

    The novel is about 80 pages long, so i don’t know if you’d call it a novel. I read Daisy’s books and thought that it would be better to keep mine short too.

    The novel changes later on too…I don’t know if you’ll like the change, Larry, as it’s a little absurd, or fantastical maybe? I’m not sure what the word is.

    Thanks for the comment, man.


    • My problem was that I do know Portillo’s work and didn’t recognise this, and I was trying to read something into it that wasn’t there. And, given that a lot of readers won’t know him, it might work better to say “this journalist” or whatever – but it’s a minor hiccup.

  3. I fucking love this, the whole thing. It’s your best work to date. I think Larry will love the change in the second half, seeing as it’s so well done.

  4. Thanks, Daize.

    Is there anything you’d cut from these first 11 pages?

  5. No way, dude. I wouldn’t change a thing.

  6. Really enjoyed this. Recommended by Daisy, pleased to have stopped by. Actually, I remember your writing style from Autho. I remember liking your other piece as well.

  7. Grabbed a hold of my gut and twisted it tight. I’m not familiar with your previous work…after this I surely want to become that way.

  8. I like the chinky bits. Many others as well. Sort of wish you didn’t use the Hallelujah…it’s so overused…in my world anyway…but then I may have burned out on it. But yes, really good business…let me know when you’re ready for a cover.

    • Yeah, i was unsure about hallelujah too…i saw the vid of Buckley on youtube and he was in this dark room all on his own, looking really fucking miserable, and i know he drowned himself…if that’s technically possible?…so i thought he’d fit the theme.

      I might try and think of someone else. Some unknown maybe? Or is that trying to be cool for the sake of it?

  9. I like what’s here, but it wasn’t enough to see where the story is going. On the other hand, it’s about as much as you could expect people to read on a monitor.

    It reminds me of a period in my late teens when I was contemplating suicide from a philosophical perspective. Not that I was suicidal. I was exploring, and if I had come up with a strong enough argument for crossing that border, I might have.

    I like the last line of this excerpt. It’s a fitting place to cut it. The mc seems emotionally distant from his quandary. He’s contemplating the end of life. But what does he do in the end? His own biological impulses toward preservation and progeneration take command.


    • Thanks, man.

      I guess everyone who reads Camus or The Devils thinks of suicide in a philosophical way.

      The story is probably not going where you think it is…unless you’ve read that Nick Nolte piece I did?

  10. I’m not overly familiar with your other stuff, but this was TOTALLY accessible. It thrums and burrows inside the reader’s head which has got to be a good thing.

    As for Portillo’s experiencing of hangings etc, I had to suppress a laugh. Let’s just say Stephen Milligan MP (deceased) and leave it at that. There were a lot of conspiracy theories.

    Camus was and is still right. Suicide or not IS the only question worth answering in our lives.

    I think “Soft Machine” is the only Burroughs book I have never read. I ran out of steam by the time I realised I hadn’t read it. A bit like your narrator.

    I enjoyed this.

    marc nash

    • Thanks, man.

      I never read any of ‘The soft machine’…only the back cover blurb. I have loaned it out from the library five times now. I’m not sure why this keeps happening.

  11. Someone else said it, but I wonder if Camus had a smile on his face as his car rushed towards impact with that tree? I think he probably did

    • Yeah, i always wondered about Sartre’s reaction to Camus’ death. I think he was in love with him. And in hate too. I think they fell out about Camus’ views on communism and how Stalin wasn’t the greatest guy in the world, but i’m not sure. And I bet it killed Sartre when he realised he was wrong and old Cams was right. And that Camus did more for the resistance in WW2, or was more active [i think someone told me this, maybe it’s not true?]. And that Camus could write better fiction. He must’ve hated him and loved him as a God. And I just know he was pissed off when Camus died first[unbelievable fucking assumption from me, but I just know it’s true].

      Not that Sartre wasn’t a genius. He was. But Camus was something else.

  12. Oli, I just love this – I saw that Portillo programme – and I loved Point Break, so you had me at the get go. This feels like the kind of rat-tat-tat I live with day in day out – i love the way you get insdie someone’s head and spread it on the page like peanuit butter

  13. not someone’s head, Dan. My head. I took a leaf out of Daisy’s books, and made the main character 100% me.


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