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John Tranter: Prose

Samples pages from Different Hands

Author’s note — Below, the first two or three pages from each of five of the seven stories published in the book Different Hands (1998), Folio/ Fremantle Arts Centre Press, PO Box 158, North Fremantle WA 6159, Australia. ISBN 1-86368-241-4. The remaining two stories are printed in full on this site:
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Each of the stories in Different Hands was freely adapted from a loose draft resulting from computer-aided analyses of letter-group frequencies in two prior samples of text, and these source texts are noted at the head of each sample. The index and frequency tables from these analyses were then blended in pairs, and the draft texts regenerated from the resulting combination.
You can read ‘Mr Rubenking’s Breakdown’, John Tranter’s article about the Brekdown computer program, on this site.
This screen is 4,300 words or about 15 printed pages long.

These links take you directly to each sample:
[»»] Neuromancing Miss Stein
[»»] The Howling Twins
[»»] Magic Women
[»»] Lonely Chaps
[»»] Room with a View, Spa Bath, Many Extras

Neuromancing Miss Stein

‘Neuromancing Miss Stein’ was derived from Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas, and William Gibson, Neuromancer. It was first published in Picador New Writing 1995.

Hemingway looked in to see the great artist he really was, or could be if he tried hard, and instead found Janet Scudder and the Famous Writer there at the zinc bar at the front of the café, talking and drinking cassis. Miss Stein had a little book with her, something we all ought to know about, but to know it too thoroughly would be a mistake. Janet was a little removed from herself, that is, from her own problems, per medium of cassis and white wine, and the transatlantic mail. Janet said that Hemingway wrote with color and energy whole paragraphs that simply meant shit. His eyes reminded her of Minnesota, and of the things that could be seen in Minnesota. She was also reminded of sheep going to slaughter, and of her wish that Americans would leave America and then go back again.

Those women, they were both awfully busy and wanting. Then they met Jean Cocteau, who prided himself on his pride, and they invited him to a dinner at the Café du Commerce. He wore a bright yellow tie and a dark grey jacket, and drank three bourbons rather quickly and then said in front of the company ‘The prize has to go to the one, you know, the one to pass Hemingway first, because he is not liked by many.’ For the American writer, such a comment was a kind of Parisian imprimatur. He said that, ah now, naked. His teeth bared. And there in front, a woman in a trench-coat. Her throat excited.

Well-liked or not, Hemingway’s career started at that point and moved sideways, instinctively getting these experiments to go with the pulse of the French cultural electrodes, and though it might seem that he had little in common with Miss Stein, he could talk to painters and people like that, and he was interested in the technicalities of writing.

The restlessness of his work, the madly swirling shades of Hemingway, that was nothing. Gertrude Stein was interested in what was in his head. For his part, he was fascinated by the enormous flocks of Gertrude Steins we had surged out from lunch to see, sailing above the city. We looked up, but they had the advantage: they looked down on Paris. Only a rectilinear chamber in a seamless universe of pacts would get rid of those thousands of eyes.

He said ‘Up there, above Europe, she invented modern writing — but epidemics of ambiguity also, and she was not yet supreme creator of the mistral. She was on the verge of that, then she gave it up.’ He was speaking in enthusiastic flanges, of course, and he would kiss your ass, in case he decided it should be whipped.

That Hemingway, writing with his twelve sharpened pencils — always like a crab, kind of crooked. At the Commerce he did not come to the tables where we ate, but he noticed Miss Stein’s yellow silk hat and he shouted from across the bar ‘Words are wordy, and silk is silken; that’s it!’

She said ‘Hemingway, he thinks he’s the next number. He says he knows it. So much he knows, he knows nothing. He wrote lots of sentences, but I do not call them literature,’ said Miss Stein, ‘as will be obvious to those who read my words.’

The Howling Twins

‘The Howling Twins’ was derived from Allen Ginsberg, Howl, and Laura Lee Hope (a pen-name of Edward Stratemeyer), The Bobbsey Twins on a Bicycle Trip. It was first published in Conjunctions in 1994.

The twins Marilyn and Stanley and their friend Charlie Rugg had stopped at the top of the hill, propped against their red bikes. They’d come rocking along to the farm at Rockaway Junction to see if they could find their pet cat named Snowball. Snowball had been rescued from Uncle Daniel’s farm a dozen times, but no permanent good had ever come of it. They’d looked and looked, to no avail.

‘Well, I guess Snowball has given us the cold shoulder again,’ Marilyn said. ‘She hid in her own kitty heaven, a heaven in the underbrush. She would have heard a dog barking, should a dog have barked. Hey, don’t you two want me to pick some apples while I’m here? I’m hungry. Maybe she’ll turn up, while we’re waiting. Maybe somebody has already found the little tyke.’

‘Sure, and maybe a bunch of guys grabbed the critter, and took her as sacrifice to their dreadful god Moloch,’ Charlie replied scornfully, ‘guys who had seen Snowball but who said nothing, nothing at all!’ He burst into tears. Marilyn comforted the poor fellow, who was now dreaming of the breasts of the boys, sobbing after they had been crushed by the stone god.

In the quiet country morning there were sounds of many animals. Stanley’s acute hearing trapped the other sounds, and sorted out their pet’s bickering meow. ‘Cats hear more than we know. I hear one meowing now, up in the branches.’

‘Uh-uh. I don’t see a cat rescued from the branches,’ Marilyn said. ‘Not by us, at any rate.’

It was fun at Uncle Daniel’s farm, but that was a vacation, not employment, which is each day suffering money burning in wastebaskets. The one symbolic escape is amnesia, and the only escapees are those who watch from the place of forgetfulness.

Marilyn listened to the spiritual sounds on the old metaphysical telephone. Lots of static. Then Death spoke, and said he was coming to get the boys. What was their crime? It was looking upon Death himself. How to escape him? Look upon Life.

‘To look upon Life,’ Marilyn said, ‘we could visit dives in the city and from the anonymous dark watch the incomprehensible jazz criminals perform with their flow of semen, or so Charlie once proposed. If I felt like it I could accuse Charlie of something awful, something to do with his body.’

‘Marilyn, I’m sure you would accuse the stoops off a building if you could,’ snapped Charlie, who had overheard. ‘I don’t give a damn if you worry about my body. I don’t know what to do next with this body, which is more than I can say for you. I’ve been places, remember.’

Marilyn remembered Charlie had gone to find out what was happening on the West Coast, and Stanley had claimed to be the True Consciousness and said he didn’t need to go there to find out. But he did go, and he found there the three old shrews: the stunned governments of capital, insulin and electricity.

Stanley, who wept for the boys the starry-spangled shocks of harlequin speech had led astray, Stanley, climbing the stairways of sin in empty lots, Stanley who jumped into the void of insulin, Stanley who lounged hungry and speechless and said ‘Kiss the ass of war, the monster whose fingers inscribe the terror.’ Stanley, who is still cursing at the harpies of the poem of life, burning a light in his naked room as a shrine. Stanley thought of Cocks and their monstrous Bombs. In the evening sky, the two twins were visions.

In his dream Stanley finds Snowball and flings the last radio of hypnotism into the East River.

Magic Women

‘Magic Women’ was derived from Louisa M.Alcott, Little Women, and Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power. It was first published in Salt in 1996.

Part One — The Meeting Behind the Mesa

I was happy once; really happy. When I  was happy and had fun, things were different. In those days I lived out back of the mesa. The mesa is where I wish to go for my dying, when the time comes.

This tale is about a meeting I had with my old friend the sorcerer Don Juan. I thought I’d visit him in his trailer home in Santa Fe, but when I went out back to borrow the pickup from my cousin Pablito, there he was — I hadn’t even started the motor.

‘You’re late,’ he said, and laughed. He looked around seventy, though he couldn’t have been more than middle-aged. Maybe it was the mescal; over the years he’d drunk enough of it. Don Juan threw his hands in the air, in short circles, and then went daintily down with his own words and my sadness, wearing the most virtuous expression I had ever seen, to the bottom of the arroyo.

‘Did you come here to lecture me?’ I asked, when he had climbed back up.

‘You are an execrable pup,’ Don Juan said, ‘but Genaro has a game of romps to loosen up stiffs like you.’ His friend Don Genaro was with him; he jumped over the garage door, then flew over the pickup and up into the clouds.

‘Wow,’ said Pablito. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked one of the girls, the pretty one with the big tits. Meg and Jo were always hanging around out back, near the pickup. ‘Is that real?’ Pablito asked rhetorically. ‘Maybe it’s just our eyes. My body jumped and so did yours. No shit.’ He went off to get a six-pack of Corona.

Don Genaro flew back in through a hole in the roof I had been meaning to mend for some time and landed right in front of Jo, bumping her somewhat in the front of her chest. ‘Whoops! I intend to point you two toward the two points of enlightenment,’ he said to Jo, who was touching up her lipstick. ‘Wisdom — it is like a rail that is not altogether a rail, with a sweeping of desert dust obscuring the path. You will follow that path to wisdom, and you will thank us for our kindness one day.’

‘Oh, sure,’ said Jo. ‘Right on.’

‘I can’t get this mystical stuff, it’s beyond me,’ said Meg.

Don Genaro stepped back. ‘Hmmm. Before I get angry,’ he said, ‘perhaps you might admit we all have a need for enlightenment.’ He wiped his mouth. ‘When I was young, I wanted it, worked for it, and eventually got it. You have been ungrateful. With your lipstick and your disco dancing, you have dirtied the earth with cheap knowledge,’ he said.

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake —’ said Jo. She turned her back on the old men and sidled up to me. ‘Pablito’s your cousin,’ she whispered. ‘I want to squeeze that handsome boy, like I’d squeeze a lemon for a glass of lemonade.’

Meg had overheard. ‘Yeah, I’d like to peel him, like I’d peel a mango. I’m not afraid of all that male power. He’s nice.’

We went inside, Jo flushed with jealousy. The tiny lights on her high-heeled slippers were blinking on and off. I had to laugh. The slippers were so expensive, and she had put them on especially in case the old gentlemen should call by, and here they were, looking and behaving like a pair of old boozers.

‘You told me they were special,’ she chided me. ‘They ain’t so special! Hey Meg, let’s go into town.’

‘I have to take care of the Heir of Radclyffe,’ Meg said, indicating the baby squirming on the kitchen floor beside her. ‘The poor thing has to grow up one day and face the unknown.’ Information or saliva flew all over the room. So Meg wiped up the mess while Don Juan and the baby exclaimed over each other’s beauty and pummelled each other softly.

‘Now he’s made a mess,’ groaned poor Jo, regarding what would have been, if the baby had let it.

‘I had a vague sense he might do that,’ Meg sighed.

Don Juan saw that domestic reality was working powerfully against his mood. He picked up some pieces of cloth and wiped the baby with them.

‘This mess —’

‘Oh, do be quiet, please!’ cried Jo.

‘Is there anything wrong in mentioning the mess?’ Don Juan asked. ‘Sorcerers have ways —’

‘That kid, he can go to the devil,’ Meg said. ‘It’s the whispering strength of baby cleaner that you should be invoking, not your goddamn magic!’ She appeared to be angry at the sorcerer, for the way he acted towards the baby was somehow wrong, and she began laughing hysterically.

Don Genaro pointed out the window to a colossal wolf which loomed in the night. ‘Say something to it,’ he said.

I started to stammer something. Don Genaro didn’t know that I can’t really talk to spirits, nor hear the talk of spirits, and while I was thinking of something clever to say, the canine disappeared.

‘It’s a sign,’ Don Juan said. ‘Tomorrow night, we go looking for a creature.’

Lonely Chaps

‘Lonely Chaps’ was derived from Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, and Captain W.E.Johns, Biggles Defies the Swastika.

They sat at the instrument panel. Dusk fell. To Mary, the earth seemed to shrink beneath them. Below, the sea at moonrise. By some evil produced by the machine, gunfire crucified Ralph. Mary pushed the stick forward, flying dangerously.

High above, in the Dornier, Schaffer stared at his own joystick. He leaned forward and flung a stream of bulbs in the direction of the girl in order to distract her.

Biggles saw that the enemy was out of range of their guns, that ominous speech. He produced his uniform and bent down a lanky colt of anti-aircraft fire, forcing the other plane to turn. It was Ginger who was in his head now, wagging his ghostly finger at him as Biggles flicked out of his dive.

A noise like wild folk flooded Mary’s hearing. Even as she tried in a sort of daze to circle the aero club she was staring down at the house, and the dim silhouette of the building made no sense to her.

All Mary could do felt wasted, all Biggles cared for was not caring, and they were both flying blind. She threw the stick forward. She talked abroad at the controls, and snatched at the sky, while the fiord remained thankfully untried. The gardens of bulbs and tracer bullets streaked, the stream of bullets were perfection, as though tracing the pattern of her arms against the maze of the clouds. One of the bombs thundered. She sat there and was deafened by the bombs that threw brightness into the air.

The seaplane turned and lost height, and came in to land at once along a narrow neck of the sea between high cliffs, whose shadow made a refuge harbour. It was high tide. The stars flung words into the water, words like courageous, invincible, enduring.

The flying-boat slipped forward. ‘That was a bad landing,’ Mary said. ‘But I’m fine. I had some anxious minutes when the vast quantities of damage were pouring from the ship by force of shrapnel.’

The motors made a coughing sound, and the glacier echoed a more sinister noise. They would be hidden from overhead view, they hadn’t given anything away.

They stopped at the limits of a cliff that night together in response to the rabbits.

In the morning Mary climbed up at the roar of engines. She had some difficulty in getting the seaplane moving. It had been in a head-on collision with the flying boat.

Soon, invigorated by hard work, she felt her body come alive. She felt almost abandoned towards her lovers who played deftly on the songs of the aerodrome buildings. The person called ‘Stephen’, who had been wounded slightly, smiled at her.

Leaning against the newly-washed plane, Biggles looked from Mary to ‘Stephen’. He felt himself redden, and gritted his teeth. ‘Are you... one — one—’ He stammered and bobbed his head — ‘One of those chaps... who...’

‘Who do what?’ ‘Stephen’ asked, cheekily.

Biggles blushed. Everyone knew ‘Stephen’ was really a girl. What a shame, he thought. Love, it exists between us even though you’re so tired. He gave her a look that said ‘And Stephen Stephen, do you hurt?’ He hadn’t meant to say it, but it would be construed by ‘Stephen’ as though he had. Ah, the subjunctive mood!

Biggles felt a terrific urge to comfort ‘Stephen’ in a fierce embrace, a grappling that would give him a moment’s happiness, a feeling his old love Anna Gordon would never give him. Somehow he knew that ‘Stephen’ was not strong enough for the feeling, and for the mad machine of his emotions.

‘Do you love me, and if so, how?’ he asked. ‘It would seem very tenderly. You shrink or sigh, and then you get going.’

‘Stephen’ made no reply. There is only one course to take, Biggles thought, and that is likely to end up against the whole world’s reckoning. Some unreasonable wish overpowered him, his wish to touch her, to bring her will under his domination. He gripped her arm. He never forgot the next instant.

She flinched. ‘Would you persecute me?’ she asked piteously. To her he seemed changed because of their love, a gross degrading act.

‘Persecute you? I thought you wished to persecute me!’ he cried. Did he secretly wish it? To be dominated? This wish was even lower than his wish to find the entrance to ‘Stephen’, the girl-man. He couldn’t admit this to himself.

‘When you were with Ginger, didn’t he put on your clothes?’ His voice was hoarse. ‘Your frilly underthings?’

‘Never,’ she replied, her lip trembling. ‘He had no desire to be me. Oh, God!’ She leaned forward suddenly as though to hook an arm around him. He recoiled. Perhaps he should condemn their love, but the rock stood firm on which, at times, love exists between one beloved and another.

‘I am a pilot, choose me,’ said ‘Stephen’ frankly. Would ‘Stephen’s’ passion push her through this new, rough love, or would she falter?

Biggles opened his arms suddenly. Yet now he spoke roughly in case he should give way to joy. He abruptly licked her, but the searchlights filled the sky with images of the girl drawing away from his mouth. Feeling the first tentative onslaught of passion Biggles frowned. He wanted security — peace, respect. And wasn’t it his duty to lock the two ‘girls’ together for the sake of England?

‘I think the mules need attending to,’ Mary interrupted. Biggles had grown tired at that moment of the problem of why their pack animals were so tired and howling. ‘Please explain —’ he began, but Mary had turned her back. He was surely entitled to discuss their mules, he thought resentfully. He turned to ‘Stephen’.

‘Stephen’ was crying. She would have to swim ashore, she realised, a bare figure paddling past the stables, the key in her body kept for Mary and for her alone. As for Mary, she would do no more than these men, drink-sodden, doped as well. Damn her! So she swam ashore, a lone scout, pale as a death-blow.

‘Wait’, Biggles yelled, and sang in the aerodrome and turned the joystick or rudder hard right. But the girl was gone. Slowly he interrogated his manly pride until it came near to the truth, and to those never-asked questions. He shared a lonely cigarette with himself. It was just a fling in the hangar, he thought, like all the others; it was only corruption and longing. He could make nothing of a woman who was also a lengthy epistle of desire.

Room with a View, Spa Bath, Many Extras

‘Room With a View, Spa Bath, Many Extras’ was derived from E.M.Forster, A Room With a View, and advertisements for houses for sale in Sydney’s eastern suburbs during June and July, 1994. It was first published in Island in 1994 and in TinFish in 1995.

Lucy couldn’t help feeling nervous as Mr. Beebe accosted the old woman, and asked if the house was for sale. ‘We want plenty of views,’ he said firmly. He was Lucy’s uncle, and believed in speaking firmly when abroad.

‘Is this house for sale?’ the old woman repeated, in a heavy accent. ‘No. Well, perhaps. And views? There are no views.’

‘No views!’ Charlotte’s voice was a whisper; she clutched her handkerchief.

Lucy smiled at her sister’s anxiety. Poor Charlotte! Lucy could see over the old woman’s shoulder that the separate dining room with two fireplaces was spacious enough, and behind that, the sun-dazzled terrace afforded unparalleled panoramic views out onto a family outdoor living area.

Miss Bartlett went upstairs to inspect the sanitary arrangements.

‘How horrible that a quality villa with such magnificent rooms is simply someone’s property to sell,’ Charlotte said, with her usual lack of tact.

Mr. Beebe tried again, and raised his voice. ‘We’re English, and rather well connected. I’ve brought my nieces with me —’

‘In Tuscany, where I come from, all the foreigners are lords from England,’ said the horrid old woman. ‘That cuts no cheese with me.’

‘My niece —’ he indicated Lucy — ‘she’s not well. We’ve come here for the waters.’

The old woman gazed out over the valley. Cars crawled along the road at the foot of the slope like miniature working models. ‘Waters? You have been misinformed. There are no waters. Here is the life-giving sun, and so we slip into the Spring. Oh well, come on in.’ She led the way. Lucy’s heart was beating. The young ladies tossed their heads and, full of alarm, surveyed the air-conditioned lounge and the marble fireplace.

It was particularly mortifying for Lucy, for this old woman’s villa was the very house she had longed to own, once, and now could never afford. Meandering across the marble floor, sighing over the lush family accommodation, she felt too ill to go on.

‘Mr. Beebe, this fireplace — it’s real marble,’ said Charlotte.

‘Silly girl.’ Mr. Beebe had a smile on his lips. ‘Far from being real marble sculptured with an impression of fresh flowers, the fireplace seems to be “marble effect”, dripping with verdure gathered from the garden by the gated swimming pool. Very interesting. Here we can enjoy dramatic views out onto the charioteer drive, there is easy access to town, and by day Sydney’s eventful history parades before us. And look at the garden.’

The garden featured a galley kitchen and a wonderful wombat-burrow park with newspapers and its own balcony. A wombat — only a strong man would keep such a fierce and obstinate animal.

Such thoughts, murmured Lucy to herself; such thoughts I’m having.

‘Shall we go out to the front of the house again?’ Mr. Beebe asked. ‘Then we can look for Miss Bartlett’s toque, which was lost yesterday.’

Lucy’s cousin George had abandoned his friendly manner. Perhaps it was the heat, perhaps the old woman. He frowned. ‘Do you think we should? Perhaps you two could just go for a scenic walk. Lucy and I could explore the old laundry.’ He smiled, showing his teeth.

‘A walk, yes, you’re quite right,’ Mr. Beebe said. ‘It’s best not to stay at home too much. A person who is not at home is rarely disturbed, they say. Then we must take the tea-basket.’ The tea-basket gave out a pleasant sound; he had players concealed inside, and they made a lovely music. Miss Bartlett was already upstairs balanced on a parapet. George took Lucy’s hand and they crossed the lounge. Outside, pale sunlight flooded the sunken pit.

Lucy and George went upstairs alone. For a moment, in step with fashion and out of earshot, Miss Bartlett contrived to remain undiscovered.

Lucy, who was not what she seemed to be, went out onto the veranda. She had plans. Just look at the things we must do to achieve a fully renovated pool, Lucy mused: and then garaging for a cousin, gardens meant to please George, a timber porch with ample parking all night, which turned into a paved garden by day.

‘There are comforts in consciously living in a state of attained profundity,’ George called from the other room. ‘The buzz of the city location is one thing. The lovely forty square metres of lawn is another.’

She looked out the window onto the spacious gardens below: it was true. But how I should like the house to have something of the taste of Provence, she thought. Tuscany was not quite so much in fashion this year; a sudden influx of colonials had quite spoiled its allure. There, in Provence, the things grow old in a charming family manner, generation after generation. One room is casual, one formal, and so on. The houses are two thousand years old, or more. Her thoughts were interrupted by a commotion from the drive.

‘Charlotte, can you please settle your driver?’

Whose voice was that? Mr. Beebe’s? She couldn’t hear Charlotte’s reply, though she caught a glimpse of her figure as she tripped by in a feeble muddle, taking ages, the way girls do.

A voice from the darkened room behind her startled her. ‘Now you gaze out at nothing,’ said Miss Bartlett. The diamond pattern on the cold floor and a grand piano followed her eyes. George had disappeared. ‘But you did not come here to gaze out. You came here for other reasons. There is a man, and you are making a nuisance of yourself with him —’

‘Why shouldn’t I be a nuisance if I wish? I am very aware of the possibility of trouble; they say opportunity breeds it. Damn you! I’m off to Bondi Junction to have some harmless fun. Then I may come back, but not to speak to you. I shall walk in the grounds.’

‘Lucy! Come here this minute!’ But it was too late. Lucy poured herself down the staircase in a rush, hoping not to be seen. The balustrade was almost blasphemous in size, a shibboleth that clambered across the mellow space of the huge entrance hall.

There was a hubbub in the drive as she left. But for all her suggested means of escape, Lucy felt sure of having to paint other people’s renovated bathrooms for a living. That wasn’t what she had planned.

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