Helter Skelter, 2019
Spinning in kaleidoscopic nightmares, Buddha bubbles, froths and overdoses.
Scalp scalped, Uncle Sam: the ulcerous slug, slithers in the snail-sheened ooze leaking from America’s new brain.
The flame of Ichiro’s cigarette bites the tips of his fingers. He feels the pain only after it has burnt his relationship, his career, his lungs. He flicks TV channels, aimlessly drifting through advertisements, unable to settle on a show which could appropriately shape his moral compass. They funnel through the brain; to Ichiro, TV is not for enjoyment, it’s for work – he’s one of those advertising hotshots working nine to five and spending his time on the rocks of Johnny Walker.
He’s Japan juiced into all-American Minute-Maid lemonade.
But he drinks Dr Pepper’s cola medicine - it’s a caffeine hit that unleashes a burst of frenetic reflection followed by a post-sugar slump. It’s only been a year since he’s moved from Japan to San Francisco and he’s already acquiring the taste.
Ichiro turns on, tunes in, drops out to Bonanza – that pro-diversity Western of Hispanic beauty which lost its audience as Mexicans poured over the border to do America’s dirty work in 65’. Reviled and spurned, they carry groceries, clean houses, park cars and toil in abattoirs – oh, the American dream – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!
Ichiro sits still, part of a doomed generation awaiting rebirth, and he’s out of the antidepressants coated with a sugary gloss – the co-creation of Big Pharmaceutical and American Crystal Sugar Co.
But his attention is severed by a thump against the window. He heaves himself up and opens the sliding door. Underneath his nose, a tiny unfledged bird helplessly twitches.
‘You’re the luckiest of us all,’ Ichiro squawks.
But wait! The jingle for an advertisement he wrote is on the TV!
Like Bert the Turtle who scared schoolchildren with the fear of red. The advertisement plays.
‘Oh, a spoonful’s all it takes
As sweet as ice-cream cake,
You too will fall in love with Frosted Flakes.
Frosted Flakes Cereal!’
He’s a true artist. No, not an artist, a writer. No not a writer, Ichiro is a copywriter, writing silly rhymes and jingles...how pathetic...
Like Stalin’s smallpox scars airbrushed from history, like Kennedy’s hidden chronic back pain – artists are advertisers, and advertisers are propagandists, changing reality into a simulacrum. But enough idle reminiscing, for I will be persecuted for being so polemic.
The walls of Ichiro’s apartment are paper-thin.
You didn’t need to be a Soviet spy planting ‘bugs’ behind a Philip Guston painting hanging on the wall of an American Corporation to know that the Capitalists are winning but still terrified of communism. Every evening he hears a hundred confessions and the couple next door are starting up again…he presses his ear close to his kitchen wall.
Man: War or no war, Nixon’s not running against Johnson, he’s running against the ghost of Kennedy.
Woman: So is Johnson.
Man: It’s hilarious – like Dr Strangelove. Don’t you agree? … In a dark comedy sort of way ...
Fatigued, the copywriter feeds off these conversations; he’s a culture vulture. ‘Suburbia’ funnelled into a fugue, it spirals down Ichiro’s ear: an inchoate uproar, an air raid of Napalm that your lawn mowing dad compares to a spray of ‘Raid’ Bug control.
The couple next door have stopped arguing.
And now he’s forced to live. He returns to toxic leisure time on the Telo(s)vision.
Barefoot Gen is on. His skin stretches, peeled back the way an Atom splits: ‘a very pleasant way to die’ echoes around the walls from the voice of General Groves, US government Minister for propaganda. Ichiro’s attention flutters between the TV and the bird outside. He crouches next to the glass and taps the window, communicating through Morse code. They’re both trapped. Trapped in life. Trapped in this poetic narrative, your poetic narrative.
But press pause on self-reflexive, self-pity, the couple next door are at it again.
Man: You know I came second in my class at Berkeley … what for… what for!! Fuck! Goddamn woman!
Woman: Stop it! Stop it! Don’t put God in the same sentence as an obscenity and a profanity.
Man: What!? You’re an atheist. You assured me of that … I was the schmuck that went to see Billy Graham – America’ spiritual leader, not you! Anyway, Jesus was the messenger boy not the man.
Woman: That’s insulting. Christ was a man with infinite compassion (sniffling...starting to cry).
Man: Wasn’t too compassionate when the USA said sayonara to Hiroshima. (lowering voice) Oh c’mon babe… Anyways, religion is dead. Existentialism’s the new panacea to life! It’s opioid for existence. It’s selling out!
They’ve moved away from the wall and Ichiro could no longer hear.
Oh, he’s as close as Sputnik to Apollo.
As close to kissing KGB rings with KFC greased lips.
This is Detente. Glasnost. We can work together!
For, ‘Stalin’ means ‘man of steel’ – the steel that forges U.S. Skyscrapers.
Whether it be a red hammer and sickle, or atom and napalm, we all kill.
When blue and red merge, God will see purple and he’ll make us black.
Ichiro stares patiently at the bird, eyes glazing over. Oh it’s as close to life as it is to death.
He hears them once again and commits to civil espionage.
Man: We’re out of milk, Alice. I’m always the one that gets the milk.
Woman: ….I forgot to take the pill.
Man: You know I’m too irresponsible to be a father! And you can’t even get milk.
Woman: You wanted the Sexual Revolution. You agreed that the patriarchy controls women’s bodies. Now we’ve got control!
Man: You’re naïve! Have you seen what’s happened to shares in pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the pill? Big business is a substitute for the patriarchy! We are as powerless as ever. And you want to bring a child into this dump!
Ichiro hears the quick whisper of shoes scuffing the hallway carpet. There’s a knock on the door.
Through the eyehole, he sees Alice: his daisy chained, on/off hippy lover. The lens distorts her face – she’s bug-eyed.
Alice (through the door): You’ve gotta get outta this dump.
Ichiro: As if anything out there is more real than what’s in here.
Alice: Not so philosophical Ichiro, it's only 10am… come with me to a concert up the coast.
Staring at the bird outside who twitches and tremors, Ichiro sees a binary fate open before him.
a) To wallow in the misery of a slow death with the bird.
b) To escape with Alice and see if his wings can fly.
He hesitantly leaves, exiting with a small notebook clutched to his waist.
Woman (ear to the wall): Oh finally, he’s gone …no more listening ...we have privacy!
Man: Pfft! It’s the Cold War! We may as well call Walter Cronkite and have him do a segment on us...everyone's listening.
Woman: (spitefully): That guy next door’s a slob (derisive chuckle). He writes lyrics of radio jingles. New chicken-chickadees are outta sight! They're really cosmic, here, take a bite!’
Man: The best minds of our generation have been lost to a sphinx of cement… I feel sorry for the guy.
Alice drives that snail-reen Kombi down the Pacific Coast Highway. She slouches into the scar wounds of a chicken-greased seat, murmuring melodies of one of Ichiro’s rent paying, pride devouring jingles.
‘I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner
That is what I truly wish to be
Cause if I were an Oscar Meyer Weiner
Everyone would be in love with me.’
Ichiro’s breath shortens until he can no longer distinguish between its melody and the satisfaction gained from filling and emptying his lungs. He feels his sponge-cake flesh meet the density of that yellow cushion erupting from the leather. And suddenly, he sees the invisible artist he is, and the empty man he will become.
Alice: I can see burn marks from the tie you’re forced to wear. It’s not natural.
Ichiro: None of this is natural, Alice. There’s a collar around our necks and no one is holding the leash.
He flicks through his notebook; clichéd maxims of hope.
He reads one aloud.
Ichiro: The weight of the world is love. Under the burden of solitude and dissatisfaction. Yet love persists.
Alice: How beautiful.
Ichiro: How naïve.
In the distance is their hippy haven. It’s headbands, ponchos and picnic blankets. It’s the untamed dancing of longhaired airheads who stammer and stumble upon strawberry fields.
Ichiro’s squat pen rests on the page, once snug as a daisy, now doom-laden as a gun. Before he writes, he must take a breath, for logic is exhausted. Sensibility has been run-over by a pathetic postmodern simulacrum...it makes his mind mythic.
He pulls the trigger.
What fires are belated, blank beats, beat for creativity, berated by reality.
He reads it.
Ichiro: The weight of the world is humanity. So heavy, it’s broken. All we can do is put the shards back together.
Alice turns her neck, opioid eyes glinting with rays of sunshine laughter. She flashes a wartime wink and shines white K9 teeth. Life swirls in slow motion.
The car speeds and screeches, the wheel flap jacked, out of control. It loses grip and swivels, headed straight for a palm tree.
And just like the burning cigarette left on the carpet, the twitching bird outside and the stale marriage of the neighbours, his life is paralysed. \
America, the land of the free, my friend.
The piece fits within the anxieties of America during the Cold War. It takes inspiration from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and Allen Ginsberg's Howl. All commentary is purely satirical and the piece is written with the hope to simulate a feeling of psychedelia. The character came about with the idea to place Ichiro from Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World into the American landscape he idolised as a child. It is a humble attempt to stretch and play with language.
Jack is an arts/law student whose interests include snowboarding, the beach, art and music. His favourite novel is On The Road by Jack Kerouac.