116. The Reader

Part 3 of the 'Vertigo' series. (Previously.)

IT WAS THE END of summer, a lingering summer. The evening was warm and Alice was wasting time at the swimming pool, something she loved to do. She was reading a novel called Verisimilitude, by Felix Buchan. She kept flicking to the back page of the novel and reading the blurb about the writer. It didn't say much other than he was half English and half French, worked as a translator, and he lived in Geneva, Switzerland. He was not a pretty sight, if truth be told, mainly because he was bald and there was always, in Alice's opinion, something a bit sad about baldness, even in cases of partial baldness. But Felix's was a particularly ugly pattern, and worse still he did not try to hide it, he wore the rest of his hair, on the sides and at the back, at a normal length, instead of shaving, as men mostly do. If she had been in his shoes, she would have insisted on not including the photograph on the back cover of the book. But she was enjoying the book too much not to keep looking at the picture of Felix Buchan and wondering if he was anything like the narrator of the story. She decided that if Felix Buchan was ever on the same train as her she would overlook the baldness and seduce him anyway. She continued to read. She was two-thirds of the way through the book. It had started slowly, but now she was finding it hard to put down. She read it every spare moment, even walking down the street. She couldn't understand what it was about this novel that was casting such a spell over her. It was a long novel, very long, and she had been reading it for the past three months, ever since before the new year. It had begun slowly, almost innocuously. It had been given to her by a strange, gloomy boy called Osman, a Turkish film student she had met at the pool. In fact, by all rights she had no reason to call him a boy, as he was her age, but there was something boyish about him, just as there was also something of an old man about him, and the pendulum swung between these two extremities - little boy and old man - without ever stopping in the middle. Osman had been taking swimming classes, an exercise in futility as he had no talent for swimming whatsoever and looked even more miserable in the water then out of it. But, perhaps driven by a shared solitude, they had become friends, uncommonly close even, for a man and a woman, although they'd never slept together despite having had several opportunities to do so over the course of the summer. He was lodging with an aunt in the outer suburbs, and oftentimes he would end the night at Alice's apartment, sleeping on the couch or even, lately, sharing her bed, rather than spend the money on a taxi fare. Many times she'd thought she might want to, sleep with him that is, although only if he initiated it, and even then she couldn't be sure. She did not know this yet, but throughout her life the more she loved a man the more she would hide it from him. As for the book, it had started off as her swimming pool book: she had begun taking it to the swimming pool and reading a few pages every day, long after Osman had given up his swimming lessons and stopped accompanying her to the pool altogether. It had taken her a month just to read Part One, which was 187 pages long. There was a lot of sex in it, which she liked, especially as she was having quite a lot of sex herself that summer, tormenting the pool boys. What she really liked was that the sex the characters were having in the novel was much like the sex she was having with the pool boys: on the whole, rather unsatisfactory. Other than the sex she didn't really get it: there were more characters in it than she could count, for one thing, and they were constantly doing pointless things that went nowhere. That, too, reminded her of her own life. In Part Two, which was even longer than Part One, there were only a few characters, although she couldn't figure out how they related to anything that had happened in Part One, which frustrated her and made her fear she'd missed some crucial bit of information, although given how long it had taken her to get this far she wasn't about to try to retrace her steps. As in Part One, in Part Two there was also a lot of pointless to and fro, but for all that something mysterious slowly took hold of her at this point, something like a spell or hypnosis, and she began to be drawn into the novel almost in spite of herself, even though she could still only barely make out who was who and what was what. In Part Three, she'd begun to be consumed by the novel. Part Three was a catalogue of horrors told very simply and matter-of-factly, with no sex whatsoever. It had begun to color her world, to skew every moment like a cheap mirror, to sap the real world of its flavor. Now she was reading Part Four, which was less horrific, almost uneventful, even, although something, some horror, always seemed about to occur without actually doing so, and this was tormenting her no end. By now she was counting the pages: she realised she only had one hundred and twenty-five pages left, and she was beginning to feel like she should slow the reading down. But she was unable to. The book had begun to take over her inner life. It had begun to colonise her dreams. It was making her melancholic and restless, making her lose all sense of time, making her want to travel and abandon herself to something unknown, or someone she hadn't met yet. Like the summer, the novel was almost over, and Alice simply couldn't bear the thought that soon, all too soon, she would be once again left to her own devices. She put the book down and sighed. The evening sky was streaked with pink bands of clouds, cut through by a dissipating stream of plane vapour. The pool was about to close, and the pool boys were busy unrolling a blue tarpaulin to cover the water in readiness for the night ahead.